Drinking from a Fire Hose: New Information in a Crisis (From the Archive)

A friend of mine replied at some length to my last post about slowing down to know your own mind before attempting to take in new information. His primary concern was that often slowing down to think what we are doing is an unaffordable luxury.

A friend of mine replied at some length to my last post about slowing down to know your own mind before attempting to take in new information. His primary concern was that there are many times, including those currently upon us, when slowing down or trying to grasp the context is an unaffordable luxury. His response is below in its entirety, followed by my comments, relevant to their numbered positions.


"Having recently read 1984 and being frustrated with having to be an overnight expert (1) on this crisis, this resonates. One thought that’s come to mind throughout this situation:
Facts are fluid in times of crisis. (2)
As situations unfold and new information is acquired (3), what we knew for certain yesterday could be completely false today. It’s easier to work and soldier on (4) if we consciously ignore past directives and focus on what’s now the reality. It is only after the crisis has passed or in our private thoughts that we can dissent. (5)
The danger we face is continuing this mindset after a crisis or, worse, acting as if we’re always in a state of crisis. (6)
During times of peace and low volatility, it’s possible, though difficult, for an executive or position of power to fully grasp all that is going on beneath them; however, in times of extraordinary volatility — when we were frantically processing loan applications and things were changing by the minute — I knew as much, if not more, about what was going on and what to do than any crisis response committee member.
Of course, once the fog of war lifts for even a moment, the higher ups regain their bearings and are able to grasp a greater knowledge of the situation. (7)
To take it to it’s logical end, I suppose that crisis is a great equalizer. (8) Suddenly, experts are useless because they don’t know any better, so it is up to the leaders to shape the narrative and guide their followers’ thoughts. (9)"

1) My friend works in the finance office of a major bank. By the passage of the recent Federal Government stimulus package, that industry has been asked to shoulder the work of processing, underwriting, and funding emergency loans to small businesses. He has been pulled into this effort, which has been rapid-fire and tumultuous for the past two weeks.

2) To destroy the punchiness of his line... I would argue that "In a crisis, facts are unknown and our approximations of them are rough and fluctuating". The underlying systems may be knowable, but we don't know them.

3) Similar to above, the goal in chaotic times is to maximize the speed at which we can adjust our mental models to new information. Part of doing this well is to remember that your current best approximation was never "the facts" in the first place.

4) This comment about efficacy strikes me as correct, within narrow bounds. We all waste a lot of time trying to trace the differences between yesterday's marching orders and today's; we would free ourselves to run with today's orders instead, so long as they are acceptable to us ethically.

5) The first time that I read through this message, this line worried me because it seems to ask us to suspend our critical thoughtfulness at a time when it is most necessary. This is an age-old debate, however, between executive action in an emergency and acting from the right reasoning. I think that my friend and I fall on different sides of the action or context dichotomy.

6) This is astute. Many people in business and politics act as though we are always in a state of exception, which is inherently contradictory and intellectually paralyzing. When choosing efficacy over deliberation, it is important to remember that the choice was made this way, that it deserves review in stable times. "The weakness of the argument for choosing the lesser of two evils has always been that those who choose the lesser evil forget very quickly that they chose evil."- Hannah Arendt

7) I believe that this state of exception proves the rule of my earlier post, so to speak. If people in positions of power have not taken the time to reflect and absorb the information available to them prior to crisis, they do not have a strong “current understanding” to update once the smoke clears.

8) Crises shake people and organizations out of their everyday routines and formulas, and make the creation of new ones not only possible but necessary. They can be tremendous opportunities for visionary leaders and hard-working, thoughtful participants, freed of the inertia and bureaucracy that would normally slow them down.

9) There is a time limit on the acceptability of this form of narrative-setting crisis leadership. At the earliest possible opportunity, leaders must seek out those on the front line in order to understand the new situation. To do less will quickly morph an effort to quell a crisis into an effort to uphold the original narrative (Vietnam war, Chinese or American early COVID response). In a business environment this is well rewarded, and my friend is clearly confident that it will happen almost instantaneously at his firm.