Product Management Marty Cagan

Coaching – Ethics

In this final article on the series on coaching, I’d like to discuss one of the most sensitive, yet potentially most important topics, and that is the subject of ethics.

As readers of these articles know, the four big risks that every product team needs to consider are:

  • Will the customer buy it, or will the user choose to use it? (value risk)
  • Can the user figure out how to use it? (usability risk)
  • Can we build it? (feasibility risk)
  • Can the stakeholders support this solution? (business viability risk)

Normally we would consider ethical questions as part of business viability.  If a solution is not ethical, it may indeed leave the company in serious trouble.

However, in practice there are two problems with this:

First, there are already so many different aspects to business viability – sales, marketing, finance, legal, compliance, privacy and more – that it’s easy for ethics to get lost.  

Second, unlike the other areas of business viability, there is rarely a stakeholder explicitly responsible for ethics.  

The result is that ethics too often does not get the attention it deserves, and we have all seen the damage to the company, to the environment, to our customers, and to society that can result from ethical lapses.

So, I have been advocating explicitly considering the ethical implications, by adding a fifth risk:

  • Should we build it? (ethical risk)

One progressive tech-product company that does have a stakeholder specifically responsible for ethics is Airbnb, where my long-time friend Rob Chesnut serves as Chief Ethics Officer.

Rob trained as a lawyer and began his career as a federal prosecutor, and then joined a young eBay as it’s legal counsel, which is where I first met him.  He has gone on to have a terrific career working for and advising a range of leading tech companies, most recently at Airbnb.

Rob has worked in the heart of Silicon Valley for decades and has seen what happens when companies don’t pay enough attention to ethics.  Rob explains, “Leaders need to recognize that there’s a sea change in the world, where companies and their leaders are increasingly going to be held accountable for ethical failures.”

There’s no question that tech is now big business, and is subject to many of the same pressures that have long challenged big public companies.  Rob explains, “In the past, companies had one stakeholder — the shareholder.  Do what’s good for the bottom line. That’s an approach that has led a lot of companies to think about everything in the short term, hitting the quarterly number.  And it’s also incented a lot of behavior that is increasingly being recognized as unethical, and causing more and more people to lose faith in companies. Hit the number, and don’t worry about whether what you’re building is really good for your customers, or the environment, or your partners, or the world at large.”

“It’s important for companies to recognize other stakeholders, and understand the implications that each product solution will have on those stakeholders.  At Airbnb, for example, we not only consider the interests of our investors, but of other important stakeholders — our employees, our guests, our hosts and the communities where we do business.  If we consistently make decisions that negatively impact one or more of those stakeholders, we know that we’re failing in our mission and, over the long term, hurting our business.”

How does ethics apply to me in my job?

Ethics applies to every member of the company, but it’s also true that product managers are on the leading edge where new products and services are conceived, developed and deployed.  So we have a special responsibility to consider the implications of our work.

As Rob explains: “Good product managers need to understand the implications of the solutions they’re designing not just on revenues, but on that broader stakeholder community.   Signals to watch for: Will the product solution be good for the end-customer? Does it have a negative impact on the environment in some way, or third parties in the community?  Is it something that, if all of the emails and documents and discussions around the product were published online, you’d be embarrassed? How would government regulators react if they knew everything?  Will the product be something that you will be proud of as part of your personal brand?”

As leaders coach their product managers, these are the types of questions we need to be discussing.  More generally, it’s important for us to get this topic out on the table. “You want a company where everyone is comfortable asking the uncomfortable questions; that helps protect your company against disastrous ethical failures.”

So what do you do if you identify an ethical issue?

One of the toughest situations for a product manager is when they spot a brewing ethical issue, but they’re not sure how they should handle the situation.  Clearly this is going to be sensitive, and potentially emotional. Our best answer is to discover a solution that does not have these ethical concerns, but in some cases you won’t be able to, or may not have the time.

Rob’s advice is: “Speak up in a thoughtful way, raise your concerns, but not in a holier than thou nor accusatory way.  Try to explain in a way that makes it clear that you care about protecting the best interests of the company.”

I have found that it’s essential that you have a deep understanding of how your business works so that you’re not perceived as naive or ignorant about the economics.  This is also a situation where you may need the help of your manager.

So what do you do if you are working at a company that you believe is fundamentally not interested in ethics?

I rarely encourage people to leave their company, however, when it comes to those companies that are clearly ignoring the ethical implications of their work, I have and will continue to encourage people to leave.

Rob’s response is “if you’re not proud of where you work, not proud of how your company is impacting the world, or believe that leadership really doesn’t care about integrity, it’s probably time to start looking for another job.”

Fortunately, in my experience, the vast majority of tech companies do care about ethics and they are genuinely trying to help improve the world in some meaningful way.  But even good intentions can have unintended consequences. As a manager, it’s become increasingly important to coach your product managers on this topic of ethics, starting with getting them to explicitly consider the question of whether we should build something.

For those that would like to learn more about this important topic, Rob has a new book coming out this summer called Intentional Integrity: How Smart Companies Can Lead an Ethical Revolution.  The book is currently available for pre-order.