Advances in Project Management: Asking why? – Ethics, Engineering and Project Management


By Michael Cavanagh 


It is only when science asks why, instead of simply describing how, that it becomes more than technology. When it asks why, it discovers relativity. When it only shows how, it invents the atom bomb, and then puts its hands over its eye and says, ‘My God what have I done?

Ursula Le Guin

 Jo has a dilemma. She’s the senior engineer on a bid team for a contract with Acme plc., a major new client with which her company have never dealt before. The team are aware that relationships between the customer and their existing supplier are not particularly good – a number of previous projects have not been delivered on time and have been massively over budget. At a conference, she happens to be sitting next to the competitor’s project manager, who does not know who she is. Coming back very early from the lunch break she notices that he has left some papers on the desk, which appear to be the executive summary and pricing breakdown of their Acme bid. She has her new 10 Megapixel camera smartphone with her. There is no-one else in the room.

Rick has a problem, too. Based in the UK, he has just implemented a successful infrastructure project for the government of the Republic of Erewhon, and is called to a meeting with the Finance minister. After saying how pleased he has been, the minister tells Rick that there is a potentially much bigger project in the pipeline, and that he would be prepared to support a bid from Rick’s company – a bid which he indicates would be significantly expedited by appointing his brother as an agent. They are both travelling to Europe shortly for a trade show, and perhaps Rick would be able to ‘look after them’ during their visit.

Sinita, a chemical engineer, faces the hardest decision of her professional life. She is devoutly religious and a pacifist. One of the products for which she is responsible has been very successful in the field of agricultural pest control. Unfortunately, she discovers that it also has potential uses as an economic weapon, and that negotiations are under way to supply the product for this purpose in large quantities.

Sally’s loyalty is strongly tested. She is the Project manager of a major subsystem component of a transportation system recently sold to an overseas customer in a third-world country which has become very wealthy very quickly due to the discovery of large quantities of natural gas. As part of the contract, some manufacturing has been undertaken in that country, and by pure chance she discovers that they have used fake parts in a component for which she is not responsible.

Mohammed also has a decision to make. After a difficult project in which relationships between his company and their customer have been very poor, he discovers that with a slight modification to the design, the system for which he was responsible (which is currently about to undergo final acceptance) would perform significantly better in operation. Incorporating this modification, however, would delay acceptance testing beyond the contractual deadline.


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About the Author 

flag-ukflag-irelandmichael-cavanaghRevd. Michael Cavanagh, MSc


Michael Cavanagh has been an independent for over twenty years in a number of business sectors. In recent years, the focus of his consulting activity has been the use of systems thinking techniques to perform ‘forensic’ analysis of major project failure and the ways in which lessons can be derived and corrective process improvement implemented, deploying a combination of Soft Systems, the Viable Systems Model and a number of tools and methods developed specifically for the task.

His book, published by Gower in 2011, introduced ‘2nd Order’ programme management concepts and the need and justification for their application to highly complex projects. The book is aimed at both practitioners and senior sponsoring management. He has also recently published two Kindle eBooks, ‘Ethical Issues in Complex Project and Engineering Management’, and ‘Project Complexity Assessment’.

Michael is an ordained Anglican priest in the Church of Ireland and is currently responsible for the churches of the Kenmare and Dromod Union, Co. Kerry. Michael can be reached at [email protected].

Editor’s note: The PMWJ Advances in Project Management series includes articles by authors of program and project management books published by Gower in the UK.  The articles are coordinated by series editor Prof Darren Dalcher, who is also the editor of the Gower Advances in Project Management series of books on new and emerging concepts in PM.  Prof Dalcher also provides an introduction to the current month’s article, which you can see elsewhere in this month’s edition.”  Information about the Gower series can be found at http://www.gowerpublishing.com/advancesinprojectmanagement.