Sunday, May 6, 2012

Fulfilling an Obligation


An architectural firm prepared a master plan for a suburban civic center and yet struggled with the city and its selected contractor in completing the city hall on schedule and with the desired quality of construction. The city, with the same contractor, wants the firm to design the buildings in the second phase of the master plan, but the firm, having lost money on the first phase, wonders if it should do so.

Do we have an obligation to finish what we started? It depends. Duty ethics would have us do our duty and fulfill our obligations regardless of the inconvenience or possible negative consequences in doing so. But does that extend beyond our contractual duties? Do we really have to follow through on something over which we have choice, with no requirement to carry it forward and especially when we have had a previous bad experience?

The architects here had reasons for wanting to do the second phase of the work: to see their master plan for the civic center completed as they envisioned, to complement the existing city hall with compatible buildings, and to continue the relationship that they had developed with the city. The firm, though, also had reasons to walk away. The city had decided on the contractor – a politically well-connected company – without giving the architects a say in the matter, and while the building had come in on budget, making that happen had led the architects to spend far more time on the project than what their fee had covered.

The firm might want to do the next phase of the work in order to recoup its losses on the first part of the project, although it also risked the possibility that this client and contractor represented a financial black hole for the firm, in which only further losses could follow those already endured. Clearly the duty to follow through on what one has started must get weighed against the duty to look after the financial health of the operation. And contrary to the tendency in ethics to seeing duty as an absolute, the reality of practice requires that we balance our duty to our clients with the our duty to our employees and partners, bringing to situations like this virtues such as the prudence to know when to say no and the courage to stand up to the contrary expectations of others.

A situation like this also raises a virtue rarely thought of as such: the virtue of creativity in seeking out a way to accomplish seemingly contradictory goals. How might this firm ensure the proper completion of its master plan while insulating itself from further losses? One option might involve charging more to do the second phase of the work, based on the firm’s knowledge of what the first phase actually cost them, and letting the client decide if it wants to pay those fees. That option allows the firm to remain open to continuing to do the work, while ensuring that it won’t expose itself to another loss if the client decides not agree to the higher price for services.

Another option might involve playing more of a consulting role, enabling the city to hire another architect to do the work, but within the guidelines and oversight established by the master plan. That maintains the relationship, ensures compliance with the master plan, and protects the first firm from financial exposure. One of the paradoxes of duty ethics is that our greatest duty is to ourselves, for without that, we will not be around to do our duty to others. 

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