Skip to content
The Innovation Process

Virtuous Circle

The virtuous circle

One prevalent definition of organisational culture is that it refers to the common values and norms that are reflected in members’ attitudes and actions. Organisational ethics is the sphere of ethics that considers how those attitudes and actions align with ethical conduct, and the ways in which the values and ethical stances of an organisation are clarified, implemented and assessed.

The precise relationship between an organisation’s culture and its ethics is open to debate (and there are diverse opinions on this). However, the Virtuous Circle tool will help innovators and organisational representatives to think about this question for themselves. The practice of periodically reflecting on these questions – and having plans, policies and procedures informed by them – will enhance an organisation’s capacity to engage in ethical humanitarian innovation.

A virtuous circle in ethics occurs when ethical acts positively reinforce an ethical climate that supports further ethical acts. The use of tools to structure ethical reflection or decision-making, such as those in this toolkit, can reinforce a virtuous circle. It is also important to consider how organisational structures and processes can contribute to a supportive environment and a climate of ethical innovation. Many organisations have a clearly articulated vision and mission statements. Ideally, organisations will also articulate their values and use these articulations to inform and inspire the development of ethical structures that can serve as the foundation of organisational ethics. An organisation’s engagement with ethics may be viewed around three different areas:

1.Ethical expertise

People or groups that are identified or purposefully convened to deliberate and/or advise on ethical issues. Examples include an individual within the organisation who is identified as an advisor on ethical issues, or an ethics committee, training group or ombudsperson. The sources of ethical expertise that will be relevant and feasible will vary depending on the size and type of organisation; however, this domain of organisational ethics guides organisations to identify who can be drawn upon to support discussions and deliberations around ethical issues in your organisation. While everyone has a role to play, specific individuals and groups, such as ethics advisors or a review committee, can be identified to create the necessary resource and space to support ethical reflection on specific topics.

2.Ethical guidance

Training, evaluation or assessment instruments that help an organisation to assess its ethical conduct. Examples include ethics training programmes, planning guides and employee appraisal tools. This area identifies what is available to be used by members of the organisation to support their work. This could mean panels of experts or committees within the organisation, or ethical bodies or resources external to the organisation. These resources should be revised periodically, at varying intervals, and some may be more foundational than others; however, a core purpose of every resource and document must be that it supports organisations and their staff to navigate ethical issues and facilitate ethical practices.

3.Ethical practice

This includes ethical support procedures, performance measures, and communications products and processes (both internal and external to the organisation). Examples include inclusivity practices, ethics reviews, integrity guidelines, critical incident review, communication strategies, fair practices, whistle-blower guidelines, conduct violation procedures, onboarding and acculturation processes, and communication with employees. This area identifies questions about how an organisation supports its people by tying together bodies, tools and other aspects of the organisation’s work (both inside and outside) to empower ethical conduct.

Implementation considerations

Having reviewed the three foundational areas of organisational ethics – ethical expertise, guidance, and practice – an innovation project might move on to an implementation phase. (Other ethical challenges may be identified when implementing innovation projects via the Ethics For Actions Tool.) Regardless of the innovation phase, innovation teams will benefit from consideration of the following five foundational questions. Reflecting periodically on these will help you and your organisation to continually strengthen your ethical climate and structures.

These ‘implementation considerations’ are not part of the tool itself, but they represent useful extra dimensions and mindsets you might like to consider while using the tool.

Mainstreaming ethical considerations

How are ethical considerations and processes addressed in your organisation’s policies, plans and procedures?

For ethics to be an effective part of your organisation’s innovation practices, the questions outlined here, and other ethical reflections you have, should be mainstreamed throughout your organisation. This includes in your formal documents and processes as well as the informal ways of working you engage in on a daily basis; in combination, these create a culture of ethics. At the strategic level, how are considerations of ethical issues reflected in your policies? For example, does your organisation have a code of conduct? How about a policy on conflicts of interest or who you will accept funding from? These high-level policies should be reviewed periodically with your organisation’s values in mind and can serve as a ‘true north’ to guide on difficult decisions. At the operational level, plans may seem to be focused solely on the sequencing of activities but important issues may be just beneath the surface. For example, which community or group has access to your innovation? How do these decisions reinforce or break existing power structures? At the tactical level, daily tasks and your organisation’s way of working may expose you to new ethical issues. How are your procedures keeping up with ever-changing circumstances on the ground? How are you soliciting and responding to complaints by end-users? What are your procedures for data protection and stewardship?

Supporting ethical climates

How can your organisation create a positive ethical climate?

An organisation’s ethical climate refers to the processes organisations institute to guide how ethical issues should be handled and the boundaries of what is deemed to be ethical conduct (Teresi et al, 2019). An important example of this can be found in the concept of moral spaces. This refers to the times, locations, conditions and other aspects within an organisation that support people in reflecting on and deliberating about ethical issues (Walker, 1993). Deliberately creating such spaces is an important part of the ethics process as it acknowledges that people need not only the knowledge but the space (literally and figuratively) to reflect on the ethics of their actions, embrace and learn from mistakes, and how they contribute to the organisation’s wider goals. One example of making a moral space would be to introduce a discussion about values or ethical challenges in team meetings or as part of a workshop. Another example would be having protected time every week where innovation stakeholders could access an ethics consultation service. The amount of time, specific location or setting may all change depending on the specific circumstances of your organisation. What is most important is to cultivate a culture where protected time and space for reflection on ethics is encouraged and supported.

Facilitating access to resources

How do you facilitate access to resources that support ethical innovation practices?

Even if you are successful in mainstreaming ethical considerations and creating a positive ethical climate, there will inevitably be situations in which the knowledge and/or skills needed to resolve an ethical issue are beyond the scope of you or your team’s expertise. Outside resources in the form of didactic materials, decision-making tools and even consultation services can be of tremendous help. However, the time to identify these resources is before the project begins and they should be regularly updated. If outside resources are to be used, an advisory board with ethics and humanitarian expertise should be identified or established before the onset of a project. One idea to facilitate their sharing of opinions with you and your team is to schedule regular consultations with an advisor before specific issues arise. This could be as simple as setting aside a specific time every other week during the pilot phase, for example, to discuss ethical reflections that arose. Once a concrete issue is identified, time can be dedicated to that specific issue; however, the team by this point will already be comfortable with expressing and analysing ethical issues with the support of an outside resource. This way, constructive feedback can be more easily given and further guidance sought if it is needed.

Reinforcing accountability

How can you create a system of accountability for innovators and oversight for innovation projects?

Accountability is a core ethical commitment that should be explicit in the early planning stages of your organisation’s project. It needs to be made clear who is accountable to whom, and for what. For example, if innovation funders are hastening implementation in a manner that may potentially harm end-users, there should be a system in place to hold the organisation accountable for the well-being of those end-users. Actions could include consultations with end-users or the triggering of an independent oversight body to review how project milestones are aligned with end-users’ readiness to receive the innovation. Conversely, if end-users are insisting that the innovation be implemented but due diligence procedures have yet to be completed, accountability measures need to be enforced and highlighted.

Prioritising learning

How do you document experiences and maintain institutional memory about ethics and innovation?

There is a tendency to prioritise projects’ success metrics far more closely than those of a project’s ethical development. Even with dedicated effort to anticipate ethical challenges during the planning phase, unexpected events will inevitably happen. In order to learn from them, processes should be established for documenting the challenges faced, proposed solutions, and outcomes of actions taken with respect to ethical challenges (this can be accomplished using the REACH Tool). These records of ethical challenges, considerations and responses can be invaluable for new team members or for onboarding innovation stakeholders as part of a project team – as well as potentially sharing with the wider humanitarian innovation community.

How to use the Virtuous Circle Tool

To operationalise some of these issues, the Virtuous Circle Tool encourages users to reflect on – and address – the following questions as an organisation. Users begin with the open questions for each foundational area; these offer a good way in to thinking about organisational ethics. The checklist questions then help users to drill down further into the details, and begin to consider what steps to take when needs are identified.

Table 3: Questions for consideration, to help organisations build a virtuous circle of ethics

Guidance Open What other organisational documents might have ethical dimensions? Mainstreaming ethical considerations
Guidance Open What high-level policies do you have in place that might guide ethical decision-making? Mainstreaming ethical considerations
Guidance Checklist Do you have guidance for data protection and stewardship? Mainstreaming ethical considerations
Guidance Checklist Do you have clearly defined accountability commitments that link to your core values? Mainstreaming ethical considerations
Guidance Checklist Do you have a policy on conflicts of interest or who you will accept funding from? Mainstreaming ethical considerations
Guidance Checklist Do you have documentation in place to support staff in navigating ethical issues and facilitating ethical practices? Mainstreaming ethical considerations
Guidance Checklist Do you have a set of core values? Mainstreaming ethical considerations
Guidance Checklist Do you have a code of conduct? Reinforcing accountability
Practice Open Do you have processes in place to solicit and respond to feedback, including complaints and recommendations, from end-users? Access to resources
Practice Open Do you have regular, protected time to discuss issues of concern and reflect on the ethics of your actions? Prioritising learning
Practice Open Do you have an ethics review process that project stakeholders can access? Prioritising learning
Practice Checklist Do you have a system to report ethical issues related to your project? Supporting ethical climates
Practice Checklist How do you learn from ethical challenges, and share what is learned with others? Supporting ethical climates
Practice Checklist How do you document experiences and maintain institutional memory about ethical issues? Reinforcing accountability
Practice Checklist How do you facilitate timely access to resources that support ethical innovation practices? Reinforcing accountability
Expertise Checklist Do you have somone allocated to manage ethical concerns, support ethical practice, and document learning? Reinforcing accountability
Expertise Open Who can you draw upon to support discussions and deliberations around ethical issues? Access to resources
Expertise Checklist Do you have specific individuals or groups, such as ethics advisors or a review committee, that support ethical reflection? Facilitating access to resources