Scrabble, Virginia – The variety of tree species in Rappahannock County is an aspect of its rural beauty that I find so rewarding. Poplar, maple, oak, pine, magnolia, cherry, dogwood, locust, ash, redbud and willow dot the county. Some of us have added non-native varietals, such as the myriad types of Japanese maple. Indeed, the largest source of Japanese maples east of the Mississippi is hidden away down a dirt road not far from here. 

For the last six weeks, this natural arboretum has been moving in stages from buds, to first leaves, and now going into full foliage. The many shades of green, along with the spectrum of flowerings, have provided an ever-changing palette throughout the first half of Spring. During much of this time, the density of leaves has been thin enough that on hikes (or with a small personal drone) one could see much farther than is the case later in the Spring and throughout the Summer. The absence of thick underbrush in early Spring has also allowed a hiker to see more of the protruding rock formations, creeks, and contours that later will be camouflaged by thorn bushes, ferns, and other under growth.

Even now in late April, what I can see from my perch has started to become a solid wall of green, hiding the individuality of each tree, obscuring the second and later rows of forest lines, blotting out from a distance some rocks and even foot paths. It will be this way now until many months later, sometime in October, when this green wall morphs into a variety of yellow, orange, red, gold, and brown, then begins to gradually fall away again, revealing what is behind the first rows of forest. For now, however, the multiple shades of green have given way to a single hue. This is our normal for now. We will adjust to that change and live with a condition of nature less beautiful than Spring, until the Autumn brings us color again.

A call this week from a friend dealing with corporate operations caused me to think of this annual flow in nature. He asked when and how to step out of the crisis mode in which his company is now operating. For several years I have been lecturing and consulting on crises and have developed a set of fifteen Laws of Crisis Management. The two most important of my laws are the first, Know You are in a Crisis, and the twelfth, Know When and How to Stop Crisis Mode. Surprisingly, most organizations fail at the first law. They realize too late that they should have been in crisis operations mode. 

These two laws aptly apply in the current crisis. The US government’s current reaction to the plague is a classic example of breaking the first law. Crisis mode should have begun in January.  Yet this government moved, kicking and screaming, into crisis mode ten weeks later than it should have, with consequent calamitous results. 

Similarly, the twelfth law, knowing how to come out of crisis mode, is also extremely well-fitted to the pandemic. In deciding at what point a transition out of the crisis mindset must come, leaders must choose between the lesser of two evils: One is the risk associated with operating before the cause of the crisis has been neutralized, and the other is the consequence of sustaining the unsustainable crisis mentality for a prolonged period.

My twelfth law of crisis management called for creating a Crisis Stand-down Planning Cell during the crisis. That group would determine whether the evolving crisis was a Class One or Class Two instance. In Class One, the crisis end is clear and the post-crisis environment is essentially the same as the pre-crisis world, requiring no significant changes.

A Class Two instance, however, is one in which there is a no clarity on when the crisis will be over and, consequently, when the organization should cease crisis mode operations.  In Class Two, the new world looks more like the crisis than it does what we knew before.  The Stand-Down Cell must develop the plans, procedures, resource requirements, and identify specific personnel to handle a crisis-to-post-crisis transition period. Only when that is all in place, can that transition commence.

In these altered states that can occur after a Class Two crisis, it is best to think of the post-crisis period as an Interim Normal along the way to a true post-crisis recovery. Resources still have to be diverted to deal with the crisis problem. Cumbersome new procedures have to be maintained, albeit on a modified basis. Despite the desire to give everyone involved a well-deserved break, it is imperative that an organization maintain capabilities to return quickly to full crisis mode, especially when the crisis is likely recrudescent.

The pandemic is a Class Two crisis. We will be shifting to an Interim Normal at least until a vaccine is available some year or two from now.  In effect a Stand-down Planning Cell of public health experts has already described what resources and capabilities we need to move to that phase. Unfortunately, we do not have them. 

We need mass testing and the capability to do widespread contact tracing. Currently lacking strategies for both, the economic burdens of crisis mode will likely be what dictate a gradual move to Interim Normal. Then, because that move was poorly resourced, the crisis will relapse, and we will return to full crisis mode. (Ramping back up will be so costly and unpopular that it may not happen, even if required for successful health outcomes.)

For however long the Interim Normal phase lasts, some aspects of our current crisis mode will continue. Social distancing may become standard in many situations. Work/Learn at Home will continue for many, in part because it is more effective and less costly for some jobs and educational requirements. Yet these conditions are peripheral to an experience with illness that is emerging as central to and common in American lives. Interestingly enough, none of our plans for this crisis, in the short time we had to make them, included getting sick ourselves or caring for ill loved ones.

The most painful part of the Interim Normal will be the higher rates of serious illness, strain on hospitals, and loss of life. The medical community is not yet prepared for that new steady state. As we do with the thickness of the Summer foliage, we will have to adjust to that change and live with a condition of nature less beautiful than Spring, until the Autumn brings us color again. (In this case, a figurative spring will come when the scientific community delivers a safe and effective vaccine at scale, likely late in 2021 or 2022.) Prepare for the Interim Normal, and in the meantime, consider what facets of the past normal are worth clinging to.

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Featuring commentary on our country, and the countryside, from rural Rappahannock County, Virginia.

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