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Over the last 7+ months at work, I've needed to handle or support several crises (I'm on the US EV board and, in normal times, head of the community health and special projects team). It's been a crisis-handling boot camp, so I want to share my lessons learned. [1] [2]

I expect to learn more in the coming months, and it's plausible that longer-term ramifications could change my lessons learned, but I wanted to share my reflections at this point.
 

My reason for writing this: I generally think that at least some of us (maybe many of us) may go through many more crises and that the world has a decent chance of getting even crazier due to AI. I want us to learn from crises and make updates to be better prepared for next time. I'm worried about people returning to normal without making relevant updates on many levels. Hopefully, some of my lessons learned will contribute to people making updates and folks being more prepared next time!

Handling yourself in a crisis:

Expand your thinking

1. Hold multiple hypotheses at once

Generally, people struggle to hold more than one or two hypotheses simultaneously, and this struggle seems even stronger during a crisis. 

The world is complicated, and being confident about what's true is tough. When people make plans, though, they often focus only on the hypothesis that they think is most likely, or at best, their top two hypotheses.

For a hypothetical example, imagine the following scenario:

You're working on getting life-sustaining and valuable resources to your allies in a place with a lot of organized crime. Pretty frequently, your supplies are stolen. You suspect Person X is behind it. One day he disappears, and a lot of supplies are missing. You need to move to the next location to get the supplies in the right hands. What should you do?  

Create multiple hypotheses! You are assuming X is behind the theft. In that world, you might want to move on without him and think through things like "Does he know where we're going to be next? Is he going to steal more? How should we update our security measures?". 

Other hypotheses you should consider:

  • Maybe he was kidnapped, in which case it would be pretty shitty to leave him.
  • Perhaps he was working with someone else. Are they on your team too? 
  • It could be a coincidence, and he didn't show up for another reason (e.g., incompetence, sickness).

Each of these hypotheses has different likelihoods; sometimes, hypotheses are not mutually exclusive. E.g., X might be behind the theft and working with others on your team; X may be incompetent and indirectly connected to the theft.

In my experience, people focus on only 1-2 hypotheses and hold those too tightly, even if they give lip service to multiple hypotheses. You should be looking for evidence for and against many different hypotheses and endeavor to track updates to many of them. Two particularly salient implications of this are:

  • If you don't hold multiple hypotheses at once, you might jump to a conclusion, which makes it less likely you make the best decision.
  • If you don't consider what you'd do in different worlds, you miss cheap and/or important ways to mitigate harm or realize the upside.

How to do it: I've found it helpful to literally write down several hypotheses. Then I take a step back and ask myself: 

  • Would I be surprised if none of these are true?
  •  What worlds are these hypotheses neglecting to consider? 
  • What's missing? 

Usually, there are more relevant hypotheses to write down and track.


 

2. Think beyond black-and-white binaries

It's easy to default to thinking in black-and-white binaries when the array of paths available to you is way more expansive. 

For example, imagine that you have to navigate a disagreement between two people. When stressed and under time pressure, it's easy to slip into deciding which person is right and which person is wrong. But, often, the reality is a lot more complex than that. It's useful to notice when you're thinking in a binary fashion. Once you notice, you can prompt yourself to see more complexity and options, such as one person is right about X and Y components, but the other person has an important point about Z.

As another example, imagine that you must figure out how to accomplish a specific complex task. You may slip into thinking either you need to find someone who can do the whole thing or you need to do it yourself. However, it's helpful to notice that there are alternatives available to you, such as (a) finding a few people to do different pieces of the task or (b) finding several people to all attempt the same task and using the best results.

In general, binaries limit your thinking.

What to do: 5-minute timers are a great tool here. When you only see two options moving forward or feel forced to choose between two options, get a piece of paper and a pen, and set a timer to brainstorm options.[3]

 

3. Identify your levers with a babble exercise

Often, in a crisis, your creativity reduces as you get more worn down, and your agency can feel more limited than it is. In these situations, it helps to brainstorm what actions you have at your disposal.

For example, imagine you're trying to reach person A urgently and don't have their phone number. Maybe you're worn down from lack of sleep. Time to enter babble mode! Some ideas you might generate:

  • Ask on Slack to see if anyone knows their number and is comfortable sharing it with you. You could message specific people on Slack who you can tell are online.
  • Message some friends who might know their number.
  • Check their email footer – they may have it listed there.
  • Message them on Facebook.
  • Email them with the subject "URGENT - call me" and your number.

Often you have more levers than you think! Listing them out can help you ensure you don't artificially constrain yourself or assume you have less power than you actually do. [4]

Again, writing them down on a piece of paper is helpful. (Remember, only some of your ideas will be good ones! The next step is to prune.)

 

 

4. Tunnel vision is common

It's easy to lose track of the most important tasks, questions, actions, and projects

Remember to do things like setting priorities, taking your own private notes/journal to help you think, and grabbing a minute to breathe and reflect. 

I recommend doing something like the following regularly:

  • Outline the most important goals and key decision points.
  • Put a sticky note with the key goals on your computer screen: this can go a long way to nudging you in the right direction when you're exhausted in a crisis.


 

5. Allocate your time based on decision importance

Divide your attention between problems proportionate to the value difference between solutions. Given time pressures in a crisis, optimizing a choice amongst robustly good options may not be worth the time. However, the time trade-offs are different if the consequences of choosing the wrong option would be significant. It's helpful to disentangle these and know which kind of decision you're making so that you can make appropriate time and attention trade-offs. 
 

For example, imagine that you have been falsely accused of robbing a bank. You have to hire a lawyer to represent you in court. You also need to be prepared to testify, so you expect you also want someone to practice with. Don't spend too much time optimizing which friend to practice with; just choose a smart friend willing to dedicate the time. If you hire the wrong lawyer, you will go to jail. Spend your time optimizing that decision. 

Care for yourself

6. The basics of self-care

During a crisis, people often don't do enough basic self-care (e.g., get enough sleep). It's easy for the basics to fall apart. And yet, the basics are essential during a crisis. I've noticed my decision-making and thinking notably worsen when I don't take care of myself (e.g., not getting enough sleep, not eating healthy).

Areas to consider:

  • Sleep
  • Exercise
  • Diet
  • Emotional/mental
  • Health (e.g., are you taking your medications if you're on any?)


 

7. Develop your self-care heuristics 

Developing basic heuristics of self-care boundaries will often be helpful, especially the longer a crisis extends. E.g., I make worse decisions with less than X hours of sleep; I make worse decisions without any time off in  Y number of days.
 

 

8. Ask for help with self-care

Having some structure and support is helpful, such as reminders to go to sleep, reminders to eat, reminders to take notes for yourself, and even meta-reminders to ask for help. In particular, I've had to be reminded to sleep enough and eat something besides one frozen food for weeks. 

I recommend asking people close to you for this kind of help when you're in a crisis. 

I also recommend offering this sort of support when someone you work with or care about is going through a crisis (though it's important to check in on whether they want that and whether you're actually helping). I've developed personalized checklists for people before, and it's been helpful to make working at a high level during an extended crisis more sustainable.

 

 

Gain perspective and an outside view

9. A good decision-making process scaffolds integrity

During a crisis, when things are intense, moving quickly, and new, it's hard to get the right answers. A good decision-making process can enable you to:

  • More easily review decisions later.
  • Share your thinking with others, even if the details are confidential.
  • Hold yourself accountable.
  • Develop the self-trust that the way you're making decisions is reasonable according to you. This self-trust makes it more likely that you'll endorse your actions later (even if it turns out that you've made a mistake).
     

Amid a crisis, I've found it fruitful to sometimes take a step back and ask myself:

  • What's a good way of making this decision?
  • If I were external to the crisis, how would I think the decision-makers should be deciding X? (This is also a great question actually to ask others who are external to the crisis.)


 

10. Get Watch Team Back Up on your thinking

It's really easy to miss things if you're in crisis. Your brain is not operating at its best, not by a long shot. Recognize that and adapt by getting external supports for your thinking.

I've found it very helpful to have an external-ish person review my thinking and flag things that seem off. It's best to find someone not in the thick of it but who cares about the same things you do. They should be someone whose judgment you trust on the kinds of issues you're facing, and it can be good to have this type of support from multiple people geared toward their strengths.


 

11. Decisions won’t be in reflective equilibrium

Relatedly, it can be almost impossible to get to reflective equilibrium for many decisions. There's not enough time to get there (at least in some flavors of crises). The lack of time to get to reflective equilibrium is part of being in a crisis. Good decision-making processes can help with this. But this is also just something you'll need to become OK with. If you hold yourself to the standard of becoming confident and fully endorsing each decision, you'll likely be too slow and lose a lot of value that way.


 

12. Crisis stages and slow updates

A crisis can come in waves, like a tsunami. It has often felt like the response to crisis waves are slow.

Here's a made-up, goofy timeline using the tsunami metaphor to illustrate my point:[5]

  1. Status quo/everyday life. La di da, hanging out at the beach. Working your regular job.
  2. The tsunami starts. There are some sirens, and the water gets very low. People are slow to realize what's begun, and some are still hanging out on the beach. Others have understood that something is happening and are running around. This point is where we might start reading the news a ton, talking to each other a lot, etc.
  3. Then the first significant destructive wave starts. This point is when people realize, "SHIT. IT'S HAPPENING. AHHHH!" A common reaction here is lots of running around and senseless action that feels very urgent. For us, this means we are very seriously asking ourselves and each other, "What should we do?" but don't have good answers yet.
  4. Then there are several more major destructive waves. Within those waves are:
    1. High-intensity crashes. This is where a lot of tsunami destruction happens. For us, this point may mean working pretty intense hours is needed.
    2. Low-intensity lulls. This point is the lull between the tsunami waves. For us, this point may mean we can get a bit of a breather, take care of ourselves more, and make sure we didn't break anything we dropped when the crisis came.
    3. In between the highs and lows – lots of strong water is rushing about, but it's not the worst of it. For us, this point may mean working something like regular hours, but all focused on the crisis at hand.

As indicated above (in 1-3), I think sometimes people are slow to update that a crisis is starting (e.g., doing the equivalent of hanging out on the beach when a tsunami is approaching fast). I realized this before and think it is a normal human phenomenon (though I'm hoping we can get better at it). 

What surprised me was that this slowness to update repeats itself in the subsequent tsunami waves (point 4). For example, it's easy to feel like you're in a high-intensity crash period (4a) for much longer than you are. It's easy to miss when you move into a lull (4b) and can get a bit of a breather. It's easy to be slow to realize when a new high-intensity crash period starts again.

Getting external support and watch team back up on this is helpful, as is just trying to pay attention and ask yourself, "Are we still in a high-intensity crisis period?". 

One potential tool is developing crisis "levels" to sync up across your team efficiently. E.g., "I'm at red-level crisis today" or "yellow-level crisis."


 

Working with others

Team building, teamwork, and relationships

13. Decisions can gain/lose legitimacy via their decision-making process

Decisions made via a clear and reasonable process can end up having more legitimacy, which can be valuable even if the final decision would have been the same either way. If someone gains some type of power or resource via a good process, they may feel more authority and ownership over that power or resource than otherwise. The same is true for how others react to the gain in power/resource.

For example, imagine you get someone to do a specific role for your team in a crisis. If you were specifically looking for their skill set, have a sense of what the role entails, and vetted them in some way, people may be able to orient to the role more productively than otherwise.

You might think that many people jump up and grab power in a crisis, but my experience, at least with EAs, is that it is often the opposite – there can be many bystanders and people wanting to cede power. A process legitimizing a decision can enable people to combat that bystander effect for themselves.

 

 

14. Unblocking action via systems and decision rights

Once crisis-specific systems and decision rights have been established with buy-in, your team can push forward faster. With those things, you can avoid re-inventing and renegotiating each task or small decision. This is helpful in a crisis, as there are often many things happening at once, with lots of time sensitivity. For example, imagine you need to make a call on several budgetary questions quickly. It's helpful if there's a system in place such as:

  • A puts together a proposal on how to handle budgetary questions in general and the specific budgetary questions at hand
  • B gives legal input
  • C gives institutional history input
  • D and E decide and have a process for what happens if they disagree

This system and structure for decision-making allow the team to handle budgetary decisions efficiently and thoughtfully.

Having systems and decision rights in place can also:

  • enable people to delegate effectively[6]
  • provide a way forward when things feel stuck

Some of the cons of systems and decision rights (including bureaucratic mazes and time-wasting) are also more complex than I realized 7 months ago. Sometimes, especially in a crisis, a lack of systems and decision rights can cause the same kinds of decision-making quagmires further down the line, and sometimes to a greater extent than in the world with systems and decision rights. It's important to track whether this is true for your crisis.


 

15. Consulting and project management experience are really useful

I have gained more appreciation for the skills involved in consulting and project management. I've been blown away by folks with this experience, especially (1) their ability to go into messy, confusing, and complex areas and help de-confuse things and create simple summaries, and (2) their ability to dive in quickly, move a bunch of tasks forward promptly, and provide organizational and logistical scaffolding. 

I now think most crisis teams should have at least one person with this skill set.


 

16. Professional expertise is a complicated mixed bag - seek it out, but don’t defer

Many professionals are either bad at their jobs or good at a version of their jobs that may not be helpful to you. The meme of "just rely on someone with professional experience" can get you in trouble, wasting valuable time, resources, and brain space which are all in short supply in a crisis. 

On the other hand, professional experience is a real thing, often very important. It catches cruxy things that a smart generalist would not even think to look for or ask about.

You'll need to balance these facts about the world; seek out good professional expertise but don't get stuck deferring.

Also, lawyers who can talk trade-offs and put odds on things are golden. Most won't.


 

17. Get flex capacity

It's often helpful to pull in more capacity urgently. In my experience, more shit comes up than you first expect, and it's good to have flex/additional capacity to support when needed. If you don't do this, you can move much more slowly on your top priorities, get really behind, and burn yourself out, which creates a negative feedback loop. At some point, you can get behind enough that it feels super costly to add in extra capacity. That's a position it's helpful to avoid if you can.

You can get flex capacity in several ways:

  • If you're part of an org, ask for help from your team members and colleagues
  • Ask for help from your network
  • Ask for help getting help 


 

18. Communication breaks down

Communication can break down when you're under a lot of stress, tired, etc. For example, you might not apply the appropriate caveats, framing, or context. You may forget about relevant information asymmetries.

Meta disclaimers are often helpful here. E.g., "I'm underwater and working quickly, so I might sound way more confident than I mean, and I might sound rude when I don't intend that." 

 

 

19. Understand your teammates

During a crisis, you can learn about people the hard way. In particular, it becomes very salient who can be relied on for what specific kinds of things and under which particular circumstances. The same goes for who to trust about what, under which circumstances. 

A takeaway I have is that people are often pretty "spikey." That is, people have some significant strengths and weaknesses; it's usually incorrect to assume that someone is super competent and has great judgment across all areas. It's really useful to know what someone's weaknesses are.

It'd be great to figure some of this out before a crisis when the stakes aren't so high. What can you trust A on? What are A’s blindspots?

Developing this knowledge about yourself and others you work with is helpful. Also, who you end up working with during a crisis may be surprising, so remembering to pay attention to this dimension during a crisis can help you gain valuable information. It's also helpful to start developing deeper models about others in your general ecosystem.

 

 

Patterns of behavior to keep in mind

20. People want to be told what to do

Many people want to be told what to do when life gets very stressful. The "breaking points" where this becomes true differ for different people and vary by the stressor. But it is a repeated pattern.

I have yet to think through the implications of this thoroughly. Some initial thoughts are:

  • Be careful not to assume people agree with you/your reasoning if they go along with what you're saying. It's worth explicitly double-clicking and asking people to check what they actually think. It's unfortunate to think that more people have thoughtfully checked your reasoning and then realize…oops, nope, everyone is just deferring to you.
  • If you (or someone else) notice that you're doing this, it's worth taking a step back, getting some pen and paper, and writing out your thoughts. Or going for a walk and doing the same.
  • Generally, be explicit about when you're deferring to someone else. E.g., "I haven't thought about this, but I'm fine to go along with it." You'll need to do this during crises; there's not time to check everything. But communicating that that's what you're doing is important for group decision-making.
  • Be careful not to be too directive by accident, especially with folks who are more burnt out and struggling with a desire to be told what to do. E.g., Saying "X is the right answer" might cause people to defer in ways you don't want (vs. saying, "I think X is the right answer. What do you think?")


 

21. Extremes around making quick, harsh calls

I've found that some people are reluctant to form and stick to harsh judgments of others, e.g., telling others to go away, judging people quickly, or not giving people second chances.[7] This seems especially true if the person in question seems especially skilled in some domains.

Without commenting on whether this is a mistake,[8] it is important to account for this dynamic in your models and understanding of others. Sometimes information cascades imply that trust and vetting have been done when it hasn't, which can make harsher judgment calls feel more difficult since it feels like you're going against the views of others.

On the other hand, the opposite is true as well – sometimes, people leap to conclusions, make snap judgments, and are slow to update in very detrimental ways.

People, including you, are often patterned in how they are biased here. It's helpful to note the pattern and account for that in your models of yourself and others.


 

22. Bias toward action or inaction

Another way you and your collaborators are likely to be biased is along the action-inaction axis. Some people are biased toward inaction, and others are biased toward action. It's helpful to figure out your and your team's biases so that you can account for them and provide each other watch team backup on this.

 

 

23. People don’t take care of themselves well

Recognize that others may not be taking care of themselves well. They may be struggling to get enough sleep. The quality of their thinking may diminish. They may need help with some of the other things I mentioned in the rest of the post. Being aware of this can help be helpful.

 

Conclusion?

I don't have a great conclusion, but I'll close with a few misc additional reflections.

  • The skills necessary in a crisis may differ from those needed generally. And the skills needed in a crisis may not have been selected for. If we expect that EA will need to navigate future crises, maybe we should be selecting for those skills, at least somewhat.
  • There are significant benefits and costs of conglomeration and doing things within official structures.
    • E.g., being able to pull in support in the worst days of crisis from various EV people was so helpful. I'm also doing that right now in another crisis; again, it's making a significant difference.
    • In situations without a primary org home managing the crisis, finding additional people to help can be more challenging.
  • My interest in things like crisis training and vetting is piqued. I'm also interested in tests of crisis skillsets and figuring out how to put together crisis teams.
  • You can prepare for crises at least somewhat. Some ideas:
    • Practice how to take care of yourself.
    • Create buffers for yourself both physically (e.g., with prescription meds, it's great to have some extra like you'd store for a natural disaster so that you don't end up running out during a crisis) and emotionally/mentally (e.g., I had just gone on a backpacking trip before all the crises started; I'm so so grateful I got to do that! It helped me make it through. Do things that help you like that when you can.)
    • Develop and maintain good relationships with those you might work closely with. Learn how to work together well, even if you're on a different team currently. Know their strengths and weaknesses and what you can trust them on.
    • Know your own strengths and weaknesses. Learn how to ask for help compensating for your weaknesses while still being able to utilize your strengths.
    • Practice the techniques I wrote about above. Develop your own techniques or find better ones. There are probably better ones; I did not do a systematized or thoughtful search.
    • Practice developing and using processes, decision rights, and systems.
    • Use minor crises as practical tests to learn things about yourself and others. Share that learning and updates you make with others.





 

  1. ^

    Disclaimer - It feels a bit weird that this is my first personal post on the Forum, but here’s where I’m starting.

  2. ^

    Credit - thanks to people I’ve been going through crises with for teaching me some of these. I appreciate it. Also, it’s super plausible to me that these ideas are not original, and I first learned them from someone else, not during a crisis period, and then forgot. Sorry if so! Also, thanks to everyone who helped me edit this and gave me encouraging noises when I posted some of these much more informally in some slacks.

  3. ^

    I learned this technique from CFAR.

  4. ^

    This feels a bit like lines of retreat to me mentally, but for going forward instead of retreating.

  5. ^

    I don't know ~anything about tsunamis. I've made up all the tsunami bits; this is not tsunami-surviving advice.

  6. ^

    The ability to delegate well and do appropriate supervision is also a valuable skill for crises.

  7. ^

    People might have the exact opposite experience. I’m not sure what’s more common in general.

  8. ^

    I think it varies and is super context-dependent; in a crisis, sometimes it’s a mistake to do this, and sometimes it’s a mistake not to.

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[anonymous]8mo5
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Thank you for sharing your learnings (and for all your hard work these past 7+ months!). As you say, there's a good chance there are more crises on the horizon and hopefully posts like this can help us be better prepared for the next one.

One part I found particularly useful was:

I have gained more appreciation for the skills involved in consulting and project management. I've been blown away by folks with this experience, especially (1) their ability to go into messy, confusing, and complex areas and help de-confuse things and create simple summaries, and (2) their ability to dive in quickly, move a bunch of tasks forward promptly, and provide organizational and logistical scaffolding. I now think most crisis teams should have at least one person with this skill set.

...

Also, lawyers who can talk trade-offs and put odds on things are golden. Most won't.

People often criticize EA orgs for not hiring more non-EA experts. (Indeed I used to be one of them, but generally the more I interact with EA orgs and non-EA experts, the more impressed I am with the former and disappointed I am with the latter.) Obviously the truth is not as simple as "EAs are always better" or "Non-EA experts are always better" and yet I very rarely see people making concrete claims about who is better in what kind of situation to what extent and for what reason.