Agile Ethics: Managing Ethical Complexity in Technology

A while back, I published an exploratory post about the gaps in process and approaches to ethical decision-making in technical production. Fast forward, and I’ve had the good fortune of working with several companies to stress test ideas and have sharpened offerings with the guidance of ethicists, engineers, policy experts, lawyers, human resources experts and many others.

I’m a big believer in people. I think we’ve been overly focused on finding technical solutions to problems caused by techno-solutionism. It is people and process that will allow for maximising benefit while mitigating harm. I am excited to say that the more work I do in this area, the more hope I have. We have an opportunity to make dramatic changes in the way teams and organisations produce technology. We must — and we can — increase the capacity of organisations, teams, and individuals to build with control, intention, and accountability. I’m excited to expand work on these issues, and have launched a company devoted solely to it. We are Agile Ethics.

Agile Ethics: Training and organisational design for an inclusive future.

This post is [1] an outline of the challenges [2] the components I have been building to meet those challenges and [3] next steps for this work. If you want to jump straight to a chat, reach out to us here.

Why This is Hard

Why Agile and Why Ethics

Why Agile

Agile development methods provide a framework that already exists within industry, and has sets of rituals that support reflection and dynamic considerations for product development. At its best, it allows for quick direction change based on evidence and input from real people that are affected by what is being built. Agile methods provide an excellent foundation for building the new process, rituals, and reflection necessary to deploy and develop ethical rulesets.

Why Ethics

If you’re like me, you find the proliferation of ‘ethics’ in technology spaces a bit bemusing. But the more I study approaches to ethical decision-making, the more I think it fits. To resist abstraction, we need rules. And to have rules, we have to translate principles into constraints and process. Ethics provides a framework to take our ‘gut feelings’ about what’s right and wrong and translate them into a framework we can measure ourselves against. Every person, team, and organisation has an ethical orientation, the challenge is making a unified ethical framework explicit and then holding ourselves to account to that framework. When an organisation says ‘we’re ethical’ we should be asking what are your ethics, how did you derive them, and what happens when someone in the organisation violates them? That said, ethics is a layer of actualised values, and is no replacement for legal accountability and effective regulation.

What Are We Missing

After wading into the deep end with several teams, I have been working to develop tools and components to tackle these challenges.

What’s Next

Agile Ethics aims to 1) improve business process for ethical decision-making in technical production 2) standardise ethics education in the technology sector and 3) support a sorting of the industry — between those who want to talk about ethics and those who want to shape operational decisions with a codified ethical framework.

This is not a PR exercise, but there is a business case for strengthening process. If you are: