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.
This post is  an outline of the challenges  the components I have been building to meet those challenges and  next steps for this work. If you want to jump straight to a chat, reach out to us here.
Why This is Hard
- From values to rules. Ethical orientation and implicit values do not translate into a clear, explicit value set. A value set does not translate into a ruleset that can aid ethical consistency across a team and across time. And even if you build a strong ruleset, it doesn’t magically evolve and adapt based on direct organisational experiences, use cases, and challenges.
- From gut feelings to baseline knowledge. Everyone on technical and governance teams needs a base level of understanding about ethical dimensions of technology production. The content of this understanding is not yet standardised, meaning there is significant variation in both the quality and underlying assumptions of practice.
- From projects to boards, and boards to projects. There is a disconnect of process. This can mean a disconnect between the project level decisions made by technical teams and the senior leadership of organisations. In some cases, this leads to highly ethical product teams fighting disinterested or even immoral leaders; in others, technical teams are building with little ethical planning and senior leaders are aghast.
Why Agile and Why Ethics
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.
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.
- Value-defining process. Most organisations have ‘feelings’ about organisational values, some have loosely written them down (and maybe hung them on their office walls), very few explicitly spell out their values in ways that clearly inform how values affect real world decisions. Value setting and value management — how values change over time or are manifested in concrete decisions over time — are necessary and rare.
- Translation of values into rulesets. Just because values are clear, doesn’t mean that teams know how to translate them into any given decision. Translating values into rulesets requires a) alignment and clarity on what you don’t do b) developing rulesets based on actual products and projects c) handling tensions between values and d) building a culture of reflection that supports the evolution of rules as teams learn and engage.
- Reflection scaffolding. Even the best intentioned project team needs support to build a consistent practice in managing ethical dimensions of technical production. Scaffolding for consistent reflection and ethical speculation in technical decision-making takes the pressure off of teams to invent process on the fly. This scaffolding can take the shape of debate workflows based on product development lifecycles, specialised documentation and consideration based on team roles, and tools for designing inclusion of affected groups into development lifecycles to test assumptions about impact.
- Organisational structure. Organisational design and explicit role definition are key to incentivising and supporting the space necessary to manage ongoing ethical assessment and learning. Organisational design support can help to balance the need for explicit designation of responsibility for managing ethics assessment without walling off the ‘ethics’ people from operational teams, or equally unhealthy, to delegate ethics to already marginalised and minority groups in an organisation.
- Adjudication infrastructure. As in any other area, not all decisions should be made solely at a project level. This isn’t because project level teams can’t make good decisions, but because senior leadership should be setting the ethical direction of an organisation and taking responsibility for outcomes. Adjudication infrastructure is the business process needed to elevate key questions to appropriate parts of the organisation, facilitate their resolution, and improve the quality and efficiency of future, similar decisions.
- Ruleset knowledge management. As a team makes explicit choices about the ethical ruleset in the organisation — through adjudication, test cases, internal debate — these choices need to be clear and accessible for project teams to consult so there is limited ‘wheel spinning’ for solved problems. Robust documentation, searchable queries, and product guides, are key to working with consistency across product teams.
- Standardised, baseline education. Technology fields are woefully unprepared and disincentivised to proceed cautiously with technical production. And while organisational process is important, there is a huge gap across the industry to standardise exposure to the right tools, process, and standards to manage the ethical dimensions of possibility. And while there are considerable, laudable increases in undergraduate and early career education, there is no professional development pathway, or credentialing mechanisms to level up the sector.
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:
- an organisation interested in tailored consulting for building more robust process for consistent, ethical decision-making in technology production, we can help.
- a technologist or someone involved in technical production and want to be in the loop when we roll out our first trainings, we’ll reach out when we’re in your city.
- an investment firm looking to navigate due diligence related to ethical technology production, we are advising in this area.