If Your Audience is Not Engaged During the Crisis Management Tabletop Exercise, You Need to Re-Think Your Approach
All successful Tabletop Exercises start with this
Having delivered hundreds of crisis management tabletop exercises over the years, it dawned on me that successful exercises all share several core concepts. The first is having a clearly defined process. How will you design the tabletop exercise to ensure you’re successful? We have a more detailed 10-step process; however, we also created a simplified 5-step version for those looking to implement a more stripped down but still effective tabletop exercise. Here are those steps and a link to a more detailed resource:
- Step 1 – Pre-Exercise Planning
- Step 2 – Exercise and Scenario Design
- Step 3 – Final Exercise Preparation
- Step 4 – Exercise Delivery and Evaluation
- Step 5 – Post Exercise Activities
Resource: eBook – 5 Steps to Creating and Delivering Tabletop Exercises
Be realistic, define clear and achievable objectives
Let’s face it, in most other areas of our business, and in some cases in our personal lives, we always seem to have a plan. When we start a project we often set goals. It’s no different when you start to plan your tabletop exercise. Consider what it is you need to accomplish and start to draft those objectives. If this is your first time, keep the objectives simple and achievable. Be realistic. How much time will you have? Will you be able to accomplish your exercise objectives? Are you creating objectives that link back to your planning documents? Having a clear link between your objectives and your planning documents ensures you’re conducting the exercise for the right reasons.
Don’t invite everyone or you will fail
After clearly defining your exercise objectives, you should now carefully consider your audience. Sometimes this is straight forward as a crisis management or other team is often a structured unit that is already in place. If you don’t have a clearly defined team, or if you’re considering inviting other groups or individuals to participate, ensure they fit into the exercise objectives. Participants will want to be engaged during the session. DO NOT invite participants and not engage them as they will probably ask why they were invited in the first place and could be a distraction to the exercise. These kinds of participants typically start to check their phones and leave the room at random times.
Capture their attention by creating intrigue
A good storyline will engage your participants throughout the tabletop exercise. Having a scenario that starts off with a realistic theme followed by ongoing and unfolding situations that participants can relate to, will keep them focused on the event. Every story has an ending. Don’t let your audience down by just ending the session without completing the story. Every story has a beginning, a middle and an end. One simulation example we use for a good storyline is one where there’s an insider or hostile group creating a crisis that leads to an FBI or other formal investigation that will require a final report. We like to create the storyline through the eyes of those who ostensibly conducted the full investigation. Of course, the participants don’t get access to this report until the end of the exercise. The element of intrigue works well for keeping your participants engaged.
Improving crisis readiness is the real reason you’re doing this
Don’t let a good exercise go to waste by not evaluating it. After all, this is the main reason you wanted to conduct the tabletop exercise in the first place. Not providing a comprehensive evaluation of the exercise is a common mistake that corporations make when they conduct exercises. As part of your initial steps in creating the exercise, you should draft criteria that will be used for the evaluation. There might already be something in place for you to follow, but if not, make sure you have at least a series of topics that need to be validated throughout the exercise. Here are some examples:
- Pre-Exercise Planning (are plans and procedures up to date? What’s missing? etc.)
- Response (how did the team respond and did they make timely decisions? Others?)
- Crisis Management (Did the leader and the team manage the simulated event? How did they, and was it impactful?)
- Crisis Communications (Did the communicators have a plan? Was their messaging effective? How was social media handled?)
- Recovery (Is there a plan and is it linked to Business Continuity or other related recovery programs?)
The above are just samples of what areas you might be evaluating. Put some thought into these kinds of criteria and maybe you will create standardized evaluation criteria that all areas of your organization’s crisis preparedness can be evaluated against. The goal might be to understand how strong the enterprise is and what needs to be done to improve crisis readiness.
Success, now where do we go from here?
The work doesn’t end after the exercise is completed. You will now need to create a report that encompasses your findings from the exercise. Not only will you be using your evidence-based data to create your report, you will also need to generate recommendations for improvement based on the findings, especially in regard to critical gaps that were identified. Ensure you have the report reviewed by key personnel who participated in the exercise. The final, and probably most important, step is to make the changes and validate them in your next exercise. We call this, lessons-to-be-learned.