Blogs & Comment

Crisis management as ethical improv

Responding ethically to crisis is like playing jazz: it takes both understanding and creativity.

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Ethics is often thought of in terms of rules: things we must do, and things we must not do. But ethics is also inevitably contextual. As moral agents we have to apply rules in a way that is sensitive to the situation. That doesn’t mean the rules go out the window. It just means that rules need to be interpreted, and applied to the particularities of the case at hand. This requires some judgment, and imagination.

Ethics is, in other words, a matter of improvisation.

The improvisational nature of ethics is particularly plain when a company is faced with an organizational crisis. A crisis is, by definition, an unexpected set of circumstances. And it requires a set of skills quite closely aligned to those required for musical improvisation of the kind manifested by, say, a good jazz musician.

Now let me be clear: when I refer to “crisis management,” I’m not talking about PR, about saying the right things to placate an angry public. I’m talking about genuinely figuring out the right thing to do, in a novel situation that requires urgent action. When your product is suspected of causing deaths, what should you do? When an executive is charged with a financial crime, how should your company respond? When disaster strikes in your community, what should your company do to help out? That a company has responsibilities in such contexts is clear; just what those responsibilities are is less clear.

Here are five ways in which ethical crisis management is like musical improvisation:

1. Perhaps most obviously, ethical response to a crisis must be creative. The right thing to do won’t be found in any pre-established script; it’s going to require an ability to adapt to the situation, and to exercise some moral imagination.

2. Ethical crisis management must be grounded in structure. Improv doesn’t mean hitting random notes. For a musician, improvisation (typically) means deviating from the melody while continuing to follow an underlying structure of some sort. Similarly, an organization is going to want to draw upon the relevant ethical principles, as well as its own basic ethical structure, consisting of things like its Code of Ethics and its Mission, Vision, and Values statements.

3. Responding ethically to a crisis requires collaboration. Improvising jazz musicians take from each other both their cues and inspiration. The best improv happens among musicians who have played together before and who trust each other. Likewise, response to ethical crisis is going to require close collaboration between senior leadership, the company’s technical experts, and perhaps its ethics-and-values staff.

4. Ethical response to crisis must be grounded in knowledge. In music, amateurs don’t really do well at improvising; their ‘improvisation’ is pretty hard to tell from, well, a series of beginners’ mistakes. The expert musician knows how to play the expected notes, knows how to stick to the melody, but chooses to deviate. The CEO responding to a crisis must likewise work from knowledge: knowledge of the nature of ethical obligation, knowledge of her company’s own values, and knowledge of the interests of various stakeholders.

5. To respond well to ethical crisis requires comfort with the relevant concepts and vocabulary. A master jazz musician reaches for unexpected notes and makes it look easy, natural. Likewise the CEO responding to crisis needs a degree of comfort with the material at hand. To respond well to ethical challenges requires that the CEO be comfortable talking about ethics and about moral responsibilities. She needs the self-assurance that comes from having thought about this stuff before. As I often tell my students, when the media cameras show up at your doorstep to ask about your company’s choices, the worst answer you can give is an awkward, “I’ve never really thought about it!”

The analogy between musical improv and ethical crisis management is not perfect, of course. For the CEO responding to crisis, the stakes are considerably higher than for the musician on stage. But I think it’s a useful way of framing the task of applying ethical standards to novel situations. Ethics should be neither rigid nor random. Responding to ethical crisis requires a sound understanding of the underlying principles, and a comfort and willingness to adapt them responsibly to the needs of the present situation.


(This blog entry is based on a presentation I gave at a workshop called “Making the Changes: Ethics and the Improvising Business,” held at the University of Guelph on December 2, 2011. Special thanks to Mark Laver for the invitation to participate.)