Moving from Crisis to Chronic

Moving from Crisis to Chronic

September 23, 2020

By Amalia Egri Freedman

safety net, public services, triage, strategy, prioritize, COVID-19A member of my family recently experienced an unexpected, non-COVID-related health emergency. With visitors barred from hospitals, rather than simply delivering updates during their rounds, doctors had to coordinate video calls with our family to provide crucial information and prepare us to support recovery at home. With remote protocols and care expectations not yet established, it can feel to families like the emergency extends into the recovery phase.

One doctor named this lack of set expectations as the challenge of moving “from crisis to chronic,” and it occurs to me that virtually all our systems are in the same position, struggling to formalize mostly ad-hoc crisis response to create a system that can address the chronic challenges of an ongoing pandemic.

In the first few months of the COVID-19 pandemic, we operated in crisis mode, whether it was how to manage remote work, how to maintain connection with clients, or how to stand up emergency services to address the urgent needs of our communities. We amazed ourselves with what we accomplished, and shed real tears at the problems we could not solve. Ideally, we made time for triage planning so that we could be intentional about how we divided our attention and resources, with shared expectations for immediate objectives as well as those efforts that needed to be tabled for an unknown period.

Now, six months into the pandemic, many of us are still operating in crisis mode. We are exhausted, and the items we put on the shelf are starting to stack up. It’s time to revisit our triage plans, no matter how planful or ad hoc, and re-evaluate our priorities and resources. We can ask ourselves four crucial questions[1] to help us re-prioritize:

  1. What efforts are still relevant, what needs to continue moving forward?
  2. What must be addressed to prevent a larger issue or more harmful situation?
  3. Some priorities face so much uncertainty that it doesn’t make sense to act right now – what are the efforts that we need to revisit in another 3-6 months to determine how to move forward?
  4. What efforts, no matter how important they seemed six months ago, do we need to honor and let go of in order to marshal our resources for our current priorities?

Doing this as a group will help teams develop shared agreements. In times of uncertainty, people naturally select tasks that either come most easily or best respond to their beliefs, creating a situation where progress feels fitful and unmanaged, and team members become frustrated due to a lack of alignment. An explicit conversation that covers not only expressed priorities, but also intentional pauses, helps team members see their roles more clearly and to be more deliberate in organizing their work.

These conversations require just a few hours in a remote environment. Ask your team to briefly review past strategic planning objectives as homework. You can also have them complete a worksheet in advance of your meeting, or create a shared document to complete together. Work to categorize each of your programs and strategies to ensure that nothing is left to assumptions. Then identify any outstanding questions that must be answered to move forward and make assignments and timelines. Once this is completed, you will have a set of shared priorities and established ownership to help support expectations and accountability.

Investing this time now and revisiting your priorities again in 90-120 days will give your team enough structure to function productively together, moving beyond crisis into something more balanced and sustainable.

[1] Center for Community Investment. Reimagining Strategy in the Context of the COVID-19 Crisis: A Triage Tool. Retrieved July 23, 2020, from

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