A Three-Year Crisis Simulation Exercise Program That Validates Preparedness is an Approach Every Organization Should Take


Does your organization just “check the box” when it comes to conducting crisis simulation exercises? Do you really understand the true value of conducting effective simulation exercises? Do you take the annual “one off” approach, or are your exercises actually linked to strategic and operational goals?

Consider an exercise program that takes place in a cycle over a three-year period. In other areas of the business, many organizations take a long-term approach to planning, and so should your crisis exercise program. The crisis simulation exercise program can start relatively simply in year one, and grow in complexity in each of the following two years.

As you start to consider a three-year program, you need to contemplate the objectives. Does your organization plan beyond one year for other initiatives? What are the organization’s strategic goals over the next five years and how will the continuity of operations, and the protection of the brand, and its reputation, play a role in achieving those objectives? Linking a three-year exercise program cycle to those other long-term objectives will also help when it’s time to get buy-in. Of course, any exercise program needs to be linked to crisis, emergency, business continuity, cyber and any other related plans that need validating.


Here’s what a three-year program might look like:


Year 1 – Crawl before you walk by conducting simple but effective tabletop exercises

If your organization is new to the simulation exercise process, you should start with simple tabletop exercises. These types of exercises are run in a no-fault and low stress environment where active participation is critical. These tabletop exercises often validate some of your core planning capabilities such as plans, processes and team capabilities. Does each team member really understand what his or her roles and responsibilities are? A simulated scenario brings out those answers and clarifies any unknowns. Of course, tabletop exercise can also look at very specific challenges that your organization is concerned about. All tabletop exercises start with clearly defining your objectives. Consider how much time you have as well as the availability of participating groups or individuals.

Year 2 – Once you have completed a series of tabletop exercises, advance to functional exercises

Functional exercises take crisis preparedness to the next level. A functional exercise is typically run at a faster pace than a tabletop exercises. They include more than one team that responds to simulated events within its own environment. Think about a corporate crisis team and one of its remote facilities responding to a scenario in real time. The event starts at the facility and quickly lines of communications and regular updates are required to be relayed between the two locations. These exercises validate real processes and systems as well as your interactions with multiple stakeholders. Functional exercises do require more planning but the process remains the same. Start with objectives and work from there.

Year 3 – build to the full-scale exercise and include all key stakeholders

After validating various elements of your organization’s crisis response capabilities through one or more functional exercises, you should then plan a full-scale end-to-end exercise. A full-scale exercise will stress test all elements of your organization’s ability to respond to, manage, and recover from a significant crisis. Very clear and concise objectives need to be agreed upon as part of the early stages of planning the exercise. Due to the amount of participating stakeholder groups, and individuals (internal and external), these exercises do require a lot of planning. The investment in time to plan a full-scale exercise always has a good ROI due to the detailed results uncovered through the evaluation of the event. From the senior leadership team and even the board room, all the way through corporate crisis management and communications teams to the operational elements of your organization, everyone involved gets something from the exercise.

Year 3 completed, now what?

Cycling back to tabletop exercises (year 1) is not a bad idea. You can start to drill down even further with your planning and procedures. Start to do more detailed tabletop exercises to look at very specific challenges but don’t forget the basics. Let the cycle continue with year two functional and year three full-scale.

I need help with creating an exercise program within my organization

Rob Burton

Rob Burton

Rob is a Principal at PreparedEx where he manages a team of crisis preparedness professionals and has over 20 years of experience preparing for and responding to crises. Part of his leadership role includes assisting PreparedEx clients in designing, implementing and evaluating crisis, emergency, security and business continuity management programs. During his career Rob has worked for the US State Department’s Anti-Terrorism Assistance Program, as a crisis management consultant in Pakistan and Afghanistan where he negotiated with the UN and Pashtun tribal warlords and he served with the United Kingdom Special Forces where he operated internationally under hazardous covert and confidential conditions. Rob was also part of a disciplined and prestigious unit The Grenadier Guards where he served Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II at the Royal Palaces in London. Rob was a highly trained and experienced infantryman serving in Desert Storm and commanded covert operational teams and was a sniper. Rob has keynoted disaster recovery conferences and participated in live debates on FOX News regarding complex security requirements and terrorism. Rob has a Queen’s Commendation for Bravery.