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Ethical dilemmas: The bearer of bad tidings

In this series we confront readers with ethical dilemmas and ask: what would you have done?

In the mid-1990s Paul Lynch, who was later to become President of the Institute of Management Consultants, penned a regular column in Management Consultancy magazine in which he posed ethical dilemmas that might confront management consultants. He asked readers what they might have done in those circumstances and in following editions fed back readers’ comments and suggestions.

Paul presented the dilemmas in a series of case studies involving fictitious professional firms and their clients in which the dilemmas are confronted by a mythical consultant, Antonia.

With Paul’s permission we are now re-publishing these dilemmas on similar terms.

What is interesting – and perhaps not surprising – is that the dilemmas have not particularly aged over the last 25 years, although where necessary we have made some editorial updates. Like Paul, we ask you what you think you would have done given the same circumstances, and in a following issue of this Newsletter we will present a commentary based on these responses and other reflections.

Case 6 - the bearer of bad tidings

At one point in her career Antonia was recruited by a medium sized multi-disciplined professional firm, Alpha Associates, to head its small department which specialised in advising clients on information technology.

Alpha Associates had recently been retained by ABC plc to assist in a substantial change programme.

Once the project started, the issue of what ABC should do about its IT came up in discussion between the Alpha Associates partner, who was relationship manager for ABC, and the Finance Director of ABC. The partner mentioned Antonia's department and its capability to assist with developing an IT strategy. As a result ABC prepared an invitation to tender and Antonia's department was invited to submit a tender in competition with other mainstream consultancies.

The upshot was that Alpha Associates won the tender and started work almost immediately. Antonia's first task was to initiate a process for teasing out the strategic directions of the business with the directors and senior managers. Her second task was to take stock of the IT assets (hardware, software and contractual services) in use. Thirdly, she needed to assess the level of knowledge and skills among the staff.

During the initial phase of fact-finding Antonia discovered that the Finance Director, her main client contact, was sponsoring a project to develop an important application, which would have substantial commercial benefits. Unfortunately, the hardware and software needed for ABC's medium to long term strategic thrust made it unlikely that this project could be integrated with it. On the face of it, this investment running well into six figures, would have a short life and the cost and training required wasted.

Antonia spent some time reviewing ABC's options. Although she did not have all the information she would have liked, she concluded that the FD’s project should be put on hold. With that done the resources could be usefully diverted to something else while the strategy was being developed. She could see no way of integrating the project into the greater benefits that would flow from a carefully balanced framework of decision-making.

She realised at this point that, if she prepared an interim report condemning this project as wasteful, she was likely to cause considerable loss of face for ABC's Finance Director. Her quandary was compounded by the fact that the FD was in the vanguard of change at ABC and criticising his initiative might be counterproductive. Reactionary forces on the client staff could take advantage of this development to slow up the pace of change by pointing to the consequences and costs of rushing on with an ill-thought-out plan of action.

Furthermore if Antonia attempted to clear such a critical report through the Alpha Associates partner he was likely to suppress it, as such a critical report might cause the client to terminate all their work, even if the other professional work had no bearing on this situation.

You can read a commentary based on readers’ observations and what had happened in reality here.

Friday 15th January 2021
The Thinker statue