Product Managers: Do You Have A Moral Code?

Yesterday: We recapped Ghost Rider #35 “Deathrace” … in 10 Panels Or Less™.

Today: We’re using this story recap as a springboard into this week’s topic: In product management, do the ends justify the means? Do we need a moral code?


Disclaimer! Not all ethics quandaries can be resolved with hellfire.

Death Is Coming For You–And Death Never Loses!

In the Marvel Universe, Death rides a sled and challenges bikers to duels to the, well, death. The problem is, Death cheats. Constantly.

At one point, Ghost Rider tires of Death’s cheating ways and blasts him with hellfire. That doesn’t work. So Ghost Rider cheats a different way–kicks Death’s front wheel during the duel, sending the macabre biker over a cliff–and this time, it works! Ghost Rider wins and escapes with his life.

The moral of the story: To win, you need to understand–and apply–the rules of the game, even if they bend or contradict your own moral code.

Moral Codes: All The Rage

The Harvard Business School recently graduated 800 new Masters of Business Administration, and these graduates all swore an Ethics Oath. Other B-schools are taking similar pledges.

Some people think this focus on ethics codes and honor pledges is a sign of the times. Others, a waste of time–or, worse, that these things trivialize business ethics altogether.

Philosopher Tom Morris Makes A Good Point

Of these oaths, Morris observes:

The core commitments of business ethics aren’t complicated in principle. But their application in the real world demands nuance, sophistication, hard thought, wisdom, skill, and consistency.

In theory, what product manager worth their salt would be against accountability, transparency, or even basic honesty? And yet…

Ethics Is More Than Not Breaking Laws

Ethics is about character. Integrity. Courage.

About being reliable, authentic, and above reproach. About owning up to mistakes and demanding accountability from others. About standing on principles, even if it means going out on a limb.

Too often, discussions about ethics seem to focus on the rule of law. What gets ignored is what Morris tagged as the “application [of ethics] in the real world”.

In the real world, most of us aren’t going to embezzle cash like the Adelphia boys or fraudulently recognize $1 billion in revenues like Enron.

But–what about the tiny lapses? The everyday misdemeanors? Individually these infractions are nothing, right? But add them up, over time… does the equation change?

And as product managers, what particular ethical hurdles do we face that other business functions might not?

Do We Need A PM Moral Code?

As product managers, we seek to understand peoples’ problems and deliver effective and appropriate solutions to those problems.

But who defines effective?

And who says what’s appropriate?

What guidelines do you follow to ethically evaluate a target market? Do ethics even enter the equation? Should they?

What about your reports? Do you round numbers up or down to suit a certain agenda?

When you report status or generate plans, how much padding do you insert to ensure you under-promise and over-deliver? Isn’t knowingly under-promising, essentially, lying to your superiors?

Is morality for product managers a cost-benefit analysis where you balance the costs and benefits of taking an action versus not taking that action? Or do you have a more well-defined moral code?

Do we need a written PM moral code? Or does that kind of oath trivialize business ethics?

Bonus Content!

In this Ted talk, Barry Schwartz (author of The Paradox of Choice) makes the case that we need to teach morals and wisdom, not passive ethics…

New Around Here?

Subscribe to the feed to receive future updates–and follow me on Twitter to keep the discussion going!

Christopher Cummings

Blogs about product management. Loves Jesus, his family, comic books, video games, and giant robots. Occasionally crawls through mud and leaps over fire.

4 thoughts on “Product Managers: Do You Have A Moral Code?

  1. That’s an interesting idea, too. I’ve heard of companies that debrief new employees who came from competitors. They take a “share as long as you don’t feel you’re violating your NDA” approach… which yields good results, but seems pretty morally dubious!

    – Chris

  2. I found this somewhere “If you have to write your ethics rules down, you’ve already lost.” #ethics #prodmgmt

    Originally posted on Twitter

Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: