Change. Chapter 8. Ethics

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The Thinker — by Auguste Rodin

“Freedom is nothing but a chance to be better.” — Albert Camus

At a certain stage in our development, it seemed ok to do whatever it took to succeed regardless of the cost to individuals, groups, or the environment. That stage has now passed.

The age of individualism is declining, and interdependent consciousness is required for nearly every collaboration and decision where more than a handful of people are involved. As we develop our systems awareness (our WE space), we need help to guide us on how to act in this new world.

A significant tool to enable appropriate decision-making is ethics.

The big theme of this book and the main shift that is required for agility is the evolution from having one mainstream narrative to a cocreated and combined set of narratives that results in a shift of consciousness from the little i to a bigger I. It is an expansion of our awareness (what we are conscious of), to something bigger than ourselves.

For this to happen we must develop our ability to hold multiple and sometimes contradicting truths at the same time. At AWA, we run workshops to enable this part of us as leaders.

Ethics is a way to map this new landscape.

Here there be dragons

Ethics cannot be just another narrative that the few create for the many.

If we want to solve the complex and wicked problems in front of us, then we must take ethics beyond the status quo of the privilege-led independent era and evolve our decision-making abilities to include every voice that needs to be heard.

Emergence itself is uncomfortable for most people. Emerging a new truth from many voices can be uncomfortable for the individual who is identified with only their own single viewpoint, who is motivated by urgency or action, or who is operating from a fear-based organisational culture.

According to Richard Schwartz, creator of Internal Family System Therapy (IFS), in early life, as we experience stress, sometimes we ‘exile’ part of our identity away from our conscious mind to repress that part of ourselves we associate with the stressor. This creates a trauma that produces emotional managers and firefighters within our personality that are ready to spring into action should a similar stressor appear in our daily lives.

When this happens, we find ourselves emotionally ‘triggered’ and we produce a physiological stress response even though there is no real immediate danger. The stress however is very real and results in our ‘thinking brain’ going off-line and we respond in a way that may not be optimal for the results that we are looking for.

In our Enterprise Coaching and Leadership cohort programs, we teach students that there is a gap of about 3–11 seconds between the awareness of the event and the emotional response. With practice, we can utilise this gap by using an NLP technique called ‘anchoring’ to redirect away from an unproductive emotional response towards creating breathing space. In this space, we can utilise our ethics to make better decisions with better outcomes.

An example from my own experience using this technique

Just recently I received an email that immediately triggered me. As I read the content, I felt immediately annoyed and a feeling arise in me like a tide of emotion. I felt compelled, almost automatically to immediately write back a retort. I have reflected on this feeling of impulsive response before and anchored in a physical withdrawal from my computer and a slow breathing technique that stops immediate action from me.

This withdrawal from the reaction is also automatic but it is programmed, it is learned. It happens in the 3–11 seconds I get before a reaction occurs. I have found this to be extremely beneficial to me and my relationships.

Building our ethical stance from the consciousness that is required to solve the problems the ethics relate to

If I want to pick up water, I cannot grab at it, instead, I must create a container for the water with my hands so that it sits calmly within.

When defining our ethical code, it is vital we create the code in the state of mind that we wish to operate in on a day-to-day basis. Our state of mind changes what we focus on and how we express ourselves.

When our body experiences physiological stress, parts of our brain are ‘switched off’ as electrical current is re-routed elsewhere, so that we can more efficiently exercise the fight and flight response.

Knowledge work, such as product development, management decision-making, and any form of collaboration becomes almost impossible whilst our body is experiencing a stress response. Typical symptoms that can be observed when a person is operating from low-level stress are:

  • Presenting only binary options
  • Overusing words like must, has to, needs to
  • No curiosity into what is happening
  • Assuming other people are either with you or against you
  • Creating a conflict situation when it is not required
  • Creating urgency when there is no need to rush

These symptoms impede the ability to create optimal outcomes and often reinforce the very constraints that are creating the problem in the first place. They also amplify organisational cultures of fear, blame, and reactivity.

It is obvious then, that creating a set of ethics to guide us in difficult decisions, needs to be created from a relaxed and non-stressed state of mind. It would be foolish to create a set of guides that continue holding us in a state of stress and anxiety when this mindset does not allow us to collectively solve the problems in front of us.

There has been a collective move towards mindfulness, meditation, and other activities that give us breathing space from the stressors in our lives. These techniques can be useful to slow the breath, heart, and give time for the body to reduce the stress hormones and return to a state of relaxation. Going for a walk outside can significantly reduce stress and put the mind and body in a better state to work and create an ethical code.

What are ethics?

Ethics is a set of heuristics that can maximise our chances of success in working with complex emergent systems whilst at the same time allowing us and our clients to sleep at night.

Life creates order from chaos in ever-increasingly complex forms. Ethics must match the complexity and context of the world in which they will be used.

Ethics are a form of ‘truisms’ that are applicable in a given context that allow us to operate from our best selves to bring about outcomes that work for everyone. They provide a safe space from which we can navigate difficult situations and still bring about positive outcomes even though we may be emotionally challenged at the time.

Ethics can be attractors or constraints in complex systems that can shift micro-decision-making and change the whole organisation’s culture. They are a significant tool in organisational change programs and can be more powerful than corporate values and rules.

A note on using ethics in complex systems

To emerge results in complex systems, we set constraints and define attractors that guide the players within the system. As coaches, we are also in the system and are held by these same heuristics, however, we do hold a rank and privilege. This must be recognised if we are to find equal voice, deep democracy, and true inclusion.

The ethical code is created by all the players in the system as well as us, as guides. We do not create ethical guides for others if we want ownership and for them to be used consistently and effectively. Ethics must emerge from the players and they are required and be relevant for the context at hand.

One might philosophise that life creates continually higher levels of order and complexity out of potential chaos and moves us further from the ever-present threat of entropy that defines our universe. The act of living creates artificial environments or systems that have boundaries that protect us and provide a world where we can feel safe and thrive. The process of creation requires a connection to at least one order of complexity higher than the domain in which we are creating a safe environment.

In the chapter on leadership, I gave examples of this, and encouraged leaders to look to vision and strategic outcomes to guide delivery and output. This is an example of operating from one level of complexity higher than the problem domain we are in.

Note: These are not the problem domains of Cynefin. I am talking about meta views into the complex problem domain. If the first order is to deliver something in a complex environment, the next order higher is to use outcomes to guide experiments in production. One order higher than that is to use values and ethics to guide the right outcomes and decisions. Each meta-view into the situation gives guidance to the view below it.

Spirituality gives us the ultimate meta-view on life that can guide us in making the right decisions across our lives.

Ethical codes from others

Many industry bodies have created ethical guides for their members to follow. Examples are:

In order to thrive in complex environments with large numbers of people, we must move from independent to interdependent consciousness and this means we cannot take blindly the ethics created by the few and apply it to the many. I wonder how many people agree to ethical codes of conduct without ever reading them just so that they can have their certificate or support of the industry body in gaining work. I wonder how many more do read them but never apply them in decision-making.

Luckily, we do not need to start from scratch each time we work with different people or a different system. The lists above and any others you may subscribe to, are great starting places to avoid rework but they are not the end.

We can use the ethics that have been defined for the various systems and bodies that we belong to, and combine them with the ethics of our client, and with our own set of values and motivations. This will create a contextually relevant set of guides that are owned by the system in which we are operating.

Complexities of combining ethics from different sources

Be aware of the systems that lend their values and ethics to our decision-making process

As Enterprise Coaches we belong to multiple systems at the same time. We belong to the system of our own, our family and our spiritual beliefs, we also belong to our client’s organisation or place of employment, and we belong to at least two different industries; the agile industry and the professional coaching industry. You may belong to even more industries that have ethical guidelines such as finance or healthcare. These are just some of the considerations we must consider when making difficult decisions.

Let’s take a real-life example where the ethical considerations clash.

David is an ICF qualified Agile Coach who works in the financial sector. He has been out of work for the last 8 months due to the Coronavirus response. He has been asked to perform a new Agile Coaching role for a top tier bank. Upon hearing about the engagement, he asks to speak with the leadership to create a coaching contract or a‘ ways of working’ agreement. He wants to explain what he can offer.

The leadership is not interested in creating a ‘ways of working’ document but instead, want him to start immediately and for him to start suggesting ideas on how to create the right processes for the teams. He can start by observing the teams in their meetings and reporting back to management what he sees.

This is a common scenario faced by many coaches. The dilemma David faces is:

  • He needs the money to pay for his mortgage
  • He wants to adhere to the ICF code of ethics that state “Explain and ensure that, prior to or at the initial meeting, my coaching client(s) and Sponsor(s) understand the nature and potential value of coaching, the nature and limits of confidentiality, financial arrangements, and any other terms of the coaching agreement.” but he is unable to do this.
  • He does not believe in installing frameworks because he believes at the heart of agility is people and not process.
  • He feels he will be violating the team’s privacy and confidentiality if he reports on their meetings.

David has an ethical choice to make. His different ethical systems are most likely in conflict in this situation.

Being precise and positive

In their book Values and Ethics in Coaching, Ioanna Iordanou, Rachel Hawley, and Christiana Iordanou propose that a more positive take on the word dilemma is choice. If we look at the meaning of the word dilemma, according to the Oxford dictionary:

Dilemma: noun

— a situation in which a difficult choice has to be made between two or more alternatives, especially ones that are equally undesirable.

I agree with their suggestion that we use the word Choice in coaching and ethics as usually there is a positive and highly desirable outcome to be found and even if there is not, it is better to start with a positive expectation from the outset.

If we further look at the idea of a choice. A choice is a decision point. A choice implies two or more options. I like to be precise when we speak of choices and options. One choice has two or more options. For example, I do not have two choices to make if I should take on client A or not. I have one choice with two options. One option is to take on the client and the other is to not.

In the next chapter, we will look at effective decision-making frameworks that utilise ethics and we will see that correct language is important for alignment and speed as well to avoid conflict and misunderstanding.

David has an ethical choice to make

What David chooses to do will depend on how he makes decisions and what elements of the different ethical and financial considerations are more important to him at the moment in time he makes the decision. His future depends on his decisions that in turn depend on his state of mind, his current situation, and his capacity to follow a sensible decision-making process.

In this chapter, we are concerned with how David will use ethics to navigate the choice he needs to make.

Making sense of Systems within systems with a Relationship Map

As with any level of complex problem, there are usually systems within systems that all impact each other in one way or another, and often with a time delay between event and impact.

With multiple systems affecting his decision making, one option David has is to map out the competing systems that he needs to consider.

This mapping technique is called a Relationship Map. It can be used in conjunction with the AWA playbook, and in any case, we always start with where we are now.

David can use a Relationship Map to draw out his present situation as he perceives it. You could use this as a coach to help him in a coaching session.

For organisational change, It is very revealing for the team to have them create a single map of their relationships together. It is a powerful sense-making tool.

David’s Ethical Relationship Map

Here is David’s relationship map.

AWA Relationship Map for sense-making in complex systems

David can use this for his own reflection or in a coaching session to visualise the different systems that require attention.

In this relationship map, we can see the innermost container has David and his teams. This may have significance for David as he makes his decision. A lot will depend on his own values and what sense-making emerges for him.

A more complex map to learn the technique

This Relationship Map is from AWA training materials. There are multiple systems involved and these are defined by the ellipses.

AWA Relationship Map for sense-making in complex systems

This is a great exercise to run when there are lots of people with complex relationships that need to be taken into consideration. The notation for these relationship maps was created by me for AWA clients and the idea is derived from constellation work.

Here is another example of a map drawn by an Agile Coach. What can you tell about this map?

AWA Relationship Map for sense-making in complex systems


For a given problem domain, draw out the systems that you belong to and that have a bearing on your decision making. Draw ellipses around each system and put the key people or teams inside the systems that they belong to. You can draw relationships between them and yourself and add any relevant events and things that are important.

You will end up with a graphical representation of your current relationship landscape. You are starting from now. You can then add any relevant ethical code of conducts, ways of working, and values and driving forces that are important to you.

It is not necessary to derive actions in this exercise, just stay with the current map and see what arises for you.

Creating your ethical code

Navigating by feeling what is right

Mostly I navigate decisions based upon how I feel about a particular situation. This serves me most of the time as in generally good enough. A certain amount of intuition works really well.

However, the problem with navigating by feel is that we are not aware of the biases and privileges that we have and often some of the consequences of our decisions are hidden from us so we can’t adjust or learn.

For anything significant, I use my code of ethics and values to guide me. Here is how to create yours. In the next chapter on decision-making, we will see how you can effectively use them and decide what ‘significant’ means for you.

Existing ethical codes

When creating a set of ethics that fit you and your context there is absolutely no reason to start from scratch. In fact, if you are a member of a professional body that has a code of ethics, you will need to start from their ethical baseline (or leave the professional body).

If you are reading this book and have not yet attended a professional coaching training course, I recommend you do so. Coaching comes with its set of ethics, and this is a good place to start from as an Agile or Enterprise Coach.

The most established set of ethics to govern the coaching world is probably the ICF set of ethics. This is a list for professional one to one coaching with some amendments for team coaching, although much of the content can easily be applied to systems with some thought.

The European Coaching and Mentoring Council (ECMC) also has a good set of ethics for professional coaches.

There have been various attempts to create a set of ethics for the agile community. The most recent being the Agile Alliance Ethics Initiative.

The idea behind the ethics published by these groups is that members or signatories agree to be held by the ethics and use them to make decisions on how they conduct their coaching.

If all coaches were to adhere to these standards encapsulated by the ethics, then hopefully we would see greater success with coaching and any decisions made by the coach would not put the coach or the coachee at risk.

It’s time to get real with these codes and read them, use them, or leave the professional body.

Starting your own ethical code

If you have created Team Alliances that have been effective you will know that they are living documents that evolve with the team. The first pass is often shallow and covers behaviours and norms that already exist and so offer little in the way of handling conflict.

As the team develops and real issues arise, the alliance grows and starts to contain the elements that meet the team at the edges of their ability to collaborate, innovate, and deal with their internal biases and prejudices.

Personal development is a vital ingredient to organisational change and the Team Alliance should reflect this as it grows with the team.

Ethics follow the same pattern as a successful Team Alliance. They start off with all the things that you do anyway and with the beliefs that are so engrained in your decision-making the exercise is fairly shallow. However, this foundation can soon grow into something powerful that supports and aids professional and personal development like scaffolding aids and supports builders developing a skyscraper.

Start with positivity

The first step in creating good ethics is to make sure that you are in the right state of mind. Whatever techniques that you usually follow to centre and balance yourself, do this first.

Following the wisdom of Appreciative Enquiry, I like to start with remembering and embodying periods in my life when I was really successful. I list all the beliefs, heuristics, and practices that enabled that success.

I look at what I am doing now and see if any of them are missing. This is a good place to start creating the ethical guidelines that will help you in your decision making.

After this first pass, I then visit the times when things did not go well. I ask myself what I could have done better. What would I do now if the same situation arose? These can form good coaching questions.

We want to bake the wisdom of success into the ethical code. Ethics should maximise our chances of success and so anything that does can go into the code. Some of these heuristics will be the secret sauce of your career. What superpowers have you uncovered? What tricks and nuggets of wisdom have you learnt?

Fold in other ethical codes

Finally, I turn to the ethical codes of the organisation, professional bodies, and spiritual groups that I belong to. How can these enhance my ethical code? Do I agree with all the elements in them?

Most of the ethical codes are fairly simple and cover only the most obvious and shallow behaviours. It is fairly easy to adhere to 90% of the ethical code of conduct for the industries in which we belong. I rarely object so much to other people’s ethical codes that I cannot agree to be a part of the professional body.

The ethical code you are creating should be much deeper and more useful.

My ethical code

Here are some examples that I am happy to share from my own ethical code that I have developed to help me in my day-to-day work and living my life.


  • Each day do some kind of reflection in the aid of self-growth
  • Each day connect to source internally to elevate my own consciousness vibration
  • Before judging be grateful and curious
  • Ask, ‘which me is my truth coming from’?
  • Speak kindly and fairly whilst making my boundaries clear
  • Balance my recency bias with appreciative journey lines


  • Value relationships over money
  • Collaboration over competition
  • Be friendly and keep the company of those I wish to be like
  • Seek the best help from the very best at what they do
  • Be the best at what I do and never relax quality for more money
  • At each strategy change, ask the question ‘are we making a difference?’
  • Reward loyalty
  • Do not suffer fools and those who actively seek to reduce our impact in the world. Focus on making our offering better and not on them


  • Be equal
  • Start with a coaching approach
  • Always work within an alliance
  • Do not coach an organisation unless the leaders are being coached
  • Operate in my day to day how I would want the organisations culture to be
  • When people are angry, confused, annoyed; remember it is their edge that is being crossed not mine. This is the work of change and not a distraction.

The power of ethics

In the next chapter, we will build a decision-making framework that utilises ethics and allows us to stay in the wisdom space of the relaxed self. It’s a busy complex world out there with hundreds of competing needs and distractions. Having an ethical compass is a tool for maximising success. It acts as both our constraint and attractor. Ethics can carve out the protective boundaries we need to operate in a safe and consistent way for ourselves and others.

Only those who can guide themselves are able to guide others.

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CEO and Founder of the community of practice, training, and coaching company: Adventures with Agile.