Simulated crisis tabletop exercises are like a flu shot: The vaccine won’t prevent the illness one-hundred percent of the time, but if you do get the flu, the vaccine will greatly reduce the illness’ severity and bring you back to health more quickly.
The potential illness in your organization is, of course, a crisis. Natural disaster or human-caused, the crisis brings pain and suffering to your organization and could even spell its demise. The tabletop exercise is a carefully orchestrated practice session where your crisis response team is assembled to respond to a realistically simulated crisis scenario — a very prudent vaccine. The scenario could be anything that could harm your organization’s reputation and its ability to function, from a natural disaster or accident to human-caused crises such as a security breach, terror attack or internally perpetrated wrongdoing.
The tabletop exercise provides the most efficient way to test and improve the effectiveness of your organization’s crisis plan and your crisis response team. Professional analysis of the exercise provides the crucial information you need to determine how well your organization would actually respond and continue functioning in a crisis, as well as how your plan and response team could be improved.
All organizations — corporations, religious or educational institutions, non-profits, government organizations, etc. — function like a living body. They have disparate systems — senior management, legal, finance, marketing, HR, communications, customer services, etc. — all working together to form an organized, healthy unit. A crisis in any one of these functions can metastasize to threaten the health of the entire organization. The inoculation of a tabletop exercise is the only way to be truly prepared for such an affliction.
It works like this: Over the course of a half- or full-day, your crisis team is assembled and presented with a realistically simulated crisis, the more realistic the better, that they must then interact with. Take, for example, a fire scenario that has resulted in fatalities. The people presenting the exercise (either an internally appointed team or outside consultants) do not present a static scenario. As would be the case with an actual crisis, the simulated one also evolves, often very quickly and in unexpected directions. It’s a moving target where the plan and the response team must be able to adjust their responses as the shifting situation demands.
The goal of the tabletop exercise is to improve both your crisis plan and the functioning of your response team thereby strengthening your organization’s immunity to crisis. When a crisis strikes, and it most assuredly will at some point, your crisis plan and crisis response team will be as prepared as they possibly can be and able to act in as effective a way as possible.
Other forms of exercises exist, ranging from simple drills to more elaborate full-scale exercises, but the tabletop exercise provides the most efficient and cost-effective way to test and improve your organization’s crisis preparedness.
In our experience at PreparedEx, where it’s our job to conduct and analyze organizations’ performances during ultra-realistic tabletop exercises, we routinely observe five individual benefits that together work to achieve the overall goal of improved crisis preparedness.
1. Tabletop Exercises increase critical thinking among leaders under “near-real” conditions
Typically, members of a crisis response team come from different systems within the organization’s “body.” There’s the ultimate decision maker, which in a corporation would usually be the CEO. Or it could be the person in charge of a satellite facility where a crisis is occurring that may or may not impact the organization as a whole. There’s a COO, a head of IT, a chief legal counsel, HSSE manager, head of marketing, head of communications, the HR head, the person who manages customer relations, sales, etc.
When things are running properly day-to-day, each of these managers vigilantly manages his or her own function. Each person rarely works interactively with the managers of other units for joint efforts — EXCEPT in a crisis when they’re called upon to assemble as members of the crisis response team. If they have never practiced together during a tabletop exercise they will face having to learn on the job during an actual crisis. Their lack of experience working together in a crisis is a glaring lack of preparedness that could, and usually does, prove very costly to the organization’s health when things hit the fan.
During an actual crisis, your response team must function as a unit whose responsibility is nothing less than protecting the very life of your organization. It should be obvious that coming together to practice critical thinking and decision making on a simulated crisis is crucial to their acting effectively during an actual crisis.
If, for example, the scenario is a big fire that has resulted in injuries and fatalities, lots of disparate functions will suddenly be called upon to work together. There’s of course the operational side of the crisis, extinguishing the fire as quickly as possible. That could very well entail coordinating the organization’s fire-fighting team with a local fire department. Fatalities mean that HR people would need to know who was injured, who was killed and know how to work with operations to accurately identify those victims. They must then know how to respond to employees’ inevitable confusion and concerns. They must know how to respond to the frantic calls of family members of employees demanding to know the fates of their loved ones.
The media would be calling the communications team, asking tough questions. What happened? How did the fire start? Is it being fought effectively? Were safety measures in place? If not, why not? The communications team would have to be accurately informed by operations and external firefighters in order to respond appropriately. After all, the news will be reported with the organization’s input or not, so you’d want to ensure as much as is practicable that the correct information is being reported and the organization’s reputation is being protected.
Customers would call the organization’s sales reps and marketing folks to find out if the fire might mean their expected shipment of product may be curtailed. Government regulators may be inquiring to find out if certain fire regulations had been observed. Clearly there can be no effective management of the crisis without the coordinated efforts and decisions of the response team. The tabletop exercise enables the response team to train as a team, understand the plan, know how to coordinate decisions and find out where gaps in the plan might exist that can be corrected.
2. Tabletop exercises uncover issues before they happen for real
During a tabletop exercise, the team practices working together on the evolving crisis, which admittedly is a real divergence from everyone’s normal daily routines, and a very necessary divergence if they expect to be prepared for a real crisis. But during the tabletop exercise, something else inevitably happens: the plan is found to have deficiencies. HR’s requests for information on who was injured and killed is not forthcoming because local medical units brought to the scene will not release victims’ names because of their own policies that were never coordinated with the organization’s policies. Reporters have gathered on the facility’s perimeter and are shooting news footage of the dramatic flames. The communications team realizes that employees exiting the site are being interviewed without permission. Who knows what they’re saying, as they likely are not privy to the organization’s authorized information. One state legislator who has publicly attacked your company in the past for alleged safety violations is using your tragic fire as a political weapon. He’s now tweeting and appearing on TV saying that the fatal fire is an example of your company’s “irresponsible chickens coming home to roast!”
All of these sorts of challenges will emerge whack-a-mole style during a tabletop exercise, challenging your response team. The experienced observers conducting the tabletop exercise will be carefully recording the exercise proceedings in preparation for their “after action report” (AAR), which will include recommendations on how to amend the crisis plan to address these gaps.
3. Tabletop exercises bring together the right people and organizations, including outside organizations, to coordinate decision making
As illustrated in the fire example, many crises spill over to involve outside agencies such as fire departments, law enforcement, EMS and many other key stakeholders. Depending on the crisis scenario that will be simulated during the tabletop exercise, outside agencies can and should participate as they surely would be involved during an actual crisis. In fact, using the fire example once more, the outside agency may indeed become the de facto leader of the crisis team, forcing the organization to endure a subsidiary role in dispensing information to the public or the news media. Planners of a tabletop exercise would necessarily want to include the participation of outside entities that would be appropriate to the scenario chosen for the tabletop exercise.
4. Tabletop exercises establish clear preparedness objectives and work to achieve them
But how do you choose a scenario to exercise on? To answer this question, scenario planners must first determine the exercise’s objectives. In a properly designed tabletop exercise, the objectives should be clear, achievable and would contribute to improving the crisis plan and the response team’s performance. Each organization will have its own exercise objectives, but here are some typical examples:
- Identify gaps or other weaknesses in our crisis plan and in our decision-making process
- Ensure that our plan has provisions aimed at fostering business continuity even while we are dealing with the crisis
- Monitor public opinion of our reputation during the crisis and take steps that protect it
- Ensure that crisis-related messages stay consistent with our organization’s publicly stated values
- Ensure that our crisis-related communications are directed to and received by our highest-priority stakeholders, including our employees and board of directors
With objectives like these in mind, a scenario can then be constructed that would help the organization achieve its stated objectives. A productive tabletop exercise requires a scenario that’s plausible and could cause grave damage to your organization — the sorts of things that actually keep your organization’s managers up at night. A manufacturer, for example, might worry more about a factory shut down due to a flood, and a bank might be more concerned about a data breach. A non-profit philanthropic organization may be worried about potential financial mismanagement that would threaten its reputation.
If, for example, one of your objectives is to strengthen security and coordination with local law enforcement, you might opt for an active shooter scenario, which would necessarily involve local law enforcement. If your objective is to strengthen coordination between a crisis at a satellite facility with the crisis response team at headquarters located many miles away, then you may want to fashion a scenario such as a natural disaster where, say, power is knocked out at the facility, creating communications challenges between the two locations and business continuity problems. The objectives of the tabletop exercise help to formulate the scenario.
5. Thoughtful and objective evaluation of tabletop exercises will strengthen crisis preparedness
When the tabletop exercise is underway, those conducting the exercise will be carefully monitoring and recording the response team’s interactions, the crisis plan’s effectiveness, crisis-related communications produced by the response team, etc. — i.e., everything that occurs during the exercise. Because those who are conducting the exercise know the exercise objectives, they have a set of evaluation criteria in hand. These criteria should be standardized across the enterprise to ensure each facility’s location or line of business is evaluated equally.
It is from their carefully recorded observations combined with the objectives-driven evaluation criteria that an assessment of the exercise will be developed and presented in the AAR. The AAR will identify problems with the plan and response team and make recommendations for improving both. The result will make your organization better prepared to cope with a crisis and able to return to normal operations as quickly as possible.
It should be evident that these five benefits of tabletop exercises fundamentally contribute to an organization’s health. Because organizations are always changing — new personnel, new products, new situations, new kinds of crises — tabletop exercises should be conducted on a regular basis, at least once or twice a year, to ensure optimal, up-to-date preparedness.
Contact PreparedEx today with your questions or if you’d like a quote for your next tabletop exercise.