High-reliability organizations operate in highly regulated sectors in which the main concern is ensuring the safety of people and goods. Despite high levels of formalization, organizations have to be sensitive to contingent situations and ready to face the unexpected, so the role of the people in command remains crucial. When unanticipated events and contingencies arise, organizational improvisation comes into its own. Improvisation is the deliberate fusion of design and execution in a novel production entailing the cognitive, rational, and event intuitive interpretation of prescribed rules and standards of conduct at various levels of aggregation. Standardization and improvisation are often represented as two conflicting demands rather than as necessarily interdependent; hence, the possible presence of improvisation in high-reliability organizations has been left underexplored. While most of the extant studies on improvisation have stressed the wisdom of improvised choices, not all improvisations are so successful. In this article we illuminate the dark side of organizational improvisation by analyzing the notorious case of the sinking of the Costa Concordia. The case shows how conformity to the formal adoption of standards and compliance to them can provide a shelter under which impromptu adaptation can be pursued, expressing the negative side of improvisation.
- Costa Concordia
- High-reliability organizations
- Managerial illusion
- Organizational improvisation