“The Crisis Management Team can only be proficient in their roles if they practice on a regular basis by conducting regular tabletop exercises” – Robert Burton, Managing Director of PreparedEx

At the International Crisis Management Conference (ICMC), a lot of resource has been presented around why practice truly does make perfect. The most prepared and ready crisis teams in the world are those that can set aside time to practice and iron out the wrinkles you may face when dealing with an event.

Below we will explore a few steps you and your organization can take to introduce and practice tabletop exercises on a regular basis.

Doing this on a regular basis will have you truly ‘crisis ready’

Tabletop exercise is an opportunity for you to get in front of your colleagues and test their preparedness without having to substitute any damaging outcomes to your organization in a real event. Having your crisis team and colleagues in a controlled environment is extremely beneficial for reporting and analyzing how they react and respond to an event.

More than anything however, it’s a time where you can discuss questions and comments around how each department or individual would react during an event. This can be extremely important when trying to convince your stakeholders of wider implementations for your crisis management program.

Making them work well and on a regular basis can be challenging for a crisis management coordinator or manager. Simply getting people’s time and attention on the topic takes good communication, great planning, and engaging session themes.

You can reassure your stakeholders that those you have run these sessions with have learnt key techniques. You can also use it as your reasoning for having regular sessions.

Chances are, that as a professional manager in this space, you are aware of why you should be conducting these tabletop exercises on a regular basis. Convincing a large organization of this though can be a challenge. Consider breaking the importance of it yourself into a why, what and how structure, similar to that of Simon Sinek’s Golden Circle.

Why should we run tabletop exercises? Because we are able to bring together heads of lines of business and leaders to evaluate their state of readiness for crisis management, disaster recovery, and business continuity. The goal is to test both their established plans and their ability to respond to unanticipated events.

What we’re going to do to achieve this is gain buy-in from the top down and create a culture of crisis management within our organization. This is then distributed into the exercise as realistic and controlled scenarios and events.

How we will do this relies on participants being presented evolving sets of facts and circumstances that require them to make a series of real-time decisions. Controlled and facilitated by trainers, the goal being that the team can practice their reactions to the event and what they can improve on for the next scenario.

PreparedEx, for example, are the experts in this and are able to create unique-to-your-company tabletop exercises, delivered with industry-leading technology.

Practice worst-case scenarios, don’t wait to experience them.

Our most memorable experiences are those that stand out in our minds as truly unique and significant. The processes and biology of how our brains retain information comes from many elements around concentration, relevance, and excitement. Is the information you are teaching sending signals to the brain that will be retrieved during an event? Or are you literally preaching to the choir?

Boston University’s William Fairfield Warren, distinguished Professor and Director of BU’s Center for Memory & Brain, suggests that the circuitry of retrieving important memories during a stressful or significant event spans long distances in the brain, and supports a complex dialog between two brain structures.

Warren suggests that to achieve high engagement during an educational session of this nature, “you must dip into the flight or fight scenario”.

“Having a student of yours calculating the decision on whether they can stay and complete the problem, or go and use techniques to avoid it will be one of your strongest attributes as a teacher. Having them question that decision is a very reliable technique to retain information on what you recommend they do and it adds an emotional, decision-making process to the outcome” Warren adds.

Executing effective and exciting table-top exercises can be one of the most positive steps in your crisis management journey.

You can make these exciting and unexpected in some scenarios (depending on your audience) to help retain those memories, for example:

  • Try starting an exercise before the session even begins by sending out an email scenario to your delegates. A reputational issue to the business that could affect them unexpectedly perhaps? Discussing this first thing to build that rapport with your delegates is a positive move.
  • Try using physical items as part of the exercise, like a flash drive ‘holding a serious virus’.
  • Death by PowerPoint needs to be avoided. According to Ross Simmonds of SlideShare.net, 94% of students react to video and high-quality images during a session than bullet pointed facts.
  • Question your audience as much as possible. This will allow them to dip into their own personal fight or flight processing.

We learn from experiencing worst-case scenarios.

No matter how good your sessions are, people will never retain information the same way they will during a significant event. Having your IT team put head first into a Ransomware attack will surely stick with them for the foreseeable future. So, you should think creatively when it comes to what exercises you are going to run.

  1. Has the crisis example happened to the organization before?
  2. Is it locally based and personal to the delegates?
  3. How likely is it the event could occur here?

Adding an emotional element helps retain information, as Professor Warren mentions above. Commit to making your delegates feel like they are part of this exercise.

Think about practicing trust, not regulation.

In our day to day lives, we are forever trying to meet deadlines and targets. As mentioned in PreparedEx’s latest article around building a crisis management foundation [link the blog I have written here], relationships with key stakeholders and the leadership team is vital early on.

If your delegates trust your knowledge, they will trust your credibility. Once you get buy-in from the stakeholders, they will also be able to reiterate your message around the importance of your tabletop exercises and program. This results in you reaching your greatest asset: word-of-mouth recommendation.

Upon facilitating these exercises, you should spend time discussing your plans around the exercises. Present your objectives, outcomes and reasoning behind certain themes and make sure it relates to the department and organization. Once management and your stakeholders buy-in to these, you will be able to rely on them to reiterate your message on the importance of exercises.

Don’t stop there though. Your audience will likely be employees from all backgrounds, level and experience; all with different ideas of Crisis Management. When you do eventually get them in a room, consider techniques on building their trust there as well (not just getting them compliant).

When an event occurs, you can be assured that your delegates will remember the feeling they had from those exercises and some of the key techniques you spoke about. Yes, your stakeholders need to be sold on the idea, but ultimately, it’s the large audience of employees who will be active and present during the event that count.

Consider advancing your tabletop exercise

As we touched on in chapter two, a realistic inject is going to add a unique and exciting feature to your training and exercise. As technology has progressed through time, so has the resource available for you to conduct a stand-out exercise with high anticipation from your delegates.

The use of technology in crisis training is still new and yet to be adopted by smaller organizations, but it is available. It doesn’t have to be complicated or a system that your guests need to learn prior either. It simply needs to be a tool you can utilize to retain interest and attention during the exercises.

A tool like SimCell can help inject realistic scenarios into the organization during the tabletop exercise. With this, the Crisis Team can get a better sense of how a crisis really unfolds, again adding to the emotional touch you are looking to achieve here.

If for example you are looking to run a cyber exercise, adding social media to the picture can help the Communications Team or IT Department react accordingly to news and updates. However, handing these injects out via printed paperwork is probably not going to impact them as much as if it appeared on their phone.

Have a dedicated role player at your SimCell location who can inject those situations, be it media, regulators, law enforcement or family members. Realistic, emotional injects will get the best reactions.

To summarize:

Practicing tabletop exercises on a regular basis is tougher than simply adding time in people’s diaries. You need to build it from the ground up so that regular sessions are expected and welcomed. Remember the three key steps:

  1. Begin your tabletop exercises early by building the right people’s confidence in you and your sessions. Build that ‘buzz’ and knowledge on what these exercises are about by having the key stakeholders and managers spread the word for you in advance.
  2. Add a human element to it and avoid ‘death by PowerPoint’ by introducing feelings and emotions to examples and injects you are supplying. Think about whether your delegates will remember the lessons when an event does
  3. Introduce technology to allow an innovative and interesting process for your audience to be a part of. Technology should be used to make your life easier but also to make the exercise as interesting as possible. It also streamlines your own preparation for the next session you wish to put on.

You can learn more about setting up your own tabletop exercise by contacting us directly or heading to PreparedEx, the professional suppliers to these unique and engaging exercises.