Crisis Management as Ethical Improv

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, I think, a set of skills quite closely aligned to the skills 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 5 specific 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 their cues from, and draw inspiration from, each other. 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 comfort 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.)

5 comments so far

  1. Jim Sabin on

    Hi Chris –

    Using jazz as the basis for conceptualizing “ethical improv” is a great piece of teaching! I’ve not been involved in the kind of organizational crisis you are talking about, but from my experiences in psychiatric practice I can say that the principles you set forth so clearly apply nicely to the handling of clinical crises as well. Over the years I’ve used Muhammad Ali’s philosophy of boxing as a guide for myself and in teaching students – “float like a butterfly; sting like a bee.” But I like your comparison to jazz even more, since collaboration and knocking out an opponent are not at all the same thing!



    • Chris MacDonald on


      Thanks for that. I’m fond of sporting analogies; sports, too, requires a lot of improvisation. Generally team sports, I think, offer the most fertile grounds for comparison. But the Muhammad Ali comparison can be useful too: business, after all, is like boxing a domain in which what would otherwise be considered anti-social behaviour is actually condoned, and sometimes the goal really IS to knock out the opponent!


  2. Peter Jones on

    Great post about crisis management, it always seems to be one of those grey area’s where people don’t know what to do with themselves. I definitely agree that an ethical crisis response must be creative, there is no right or wrong way to handle a situation like that. One thing to remember is to remember the company image, what ever situation you end up in, always think of how the company will be portrayed afterwards.


  3. Tony Sim on

    I echo Jim’s appreciation of the jazz analogy; a refreshing perspective. Crisis management is an interesting one because as human beings we are not programmed to act the same or know instinctively to do in a crisis. An ethical crisis can bring a business to its knees if not dealt with quickly, calmly and responsibly.
    A creative response may just be the best answer!

  4. Public relations India on

    I completely agree with you. Ethical crisis management is like musical improvisation. Effective communication is the way to come out of crisis.

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