One of the most undervalued training and evaluation tools is the Tabletop Exercise.

A Tabletop Exercise can be delivered in almost any setting and can help teams create trust amongst themselves as well as their critical vendors and other key stakeholders. There are many more benefits to conducting Tabletop Exercises. In this article, I’m going to provide you with eight reasons why your Tabletop Exercises can fail.

  1. Not Defining Clear and Achievable Objectives

Not defining the reason(s) you want to conduct the Tabletop Exercise is the first place is a big mistake. Don’t just say “we want to look at a cyber-security or workplace violence scenario” actually write down why you want to look at those scenarios. Is it to validate plans or procedures? Is it to understand crisis management roles and responsibilities? Or is it some other reason? Don’t over complicate the objectives and ensure they’re achievable or your exercise might be a flop.

  1. Inviting the Wrong Audience

Number two is a little more obvious but it does happen. You don’t want people in the session that have no relevance to the subject that your objectives are trying to accomplish. For instance, there’s no need to have operations involved if it’s a specific crisis communications media exercise. After defining the objectives, inviting the right audience becomes easier. Others may ask to attend the session, just ensure they understand that the exercise is not designed with them in mind. Exercise observers can be a distraction if they’re not managed.

  1. Not Creating an Engaging Storyline that Involves Everyone

We just mentioned not having the right people in the session and now we want to make sure our scenario has challenges for those people we do invite. This is a little more difficult if you have a cross functional team that is made up of many disciplines across the organization. A Crisis Management Team for instance might include regulatory affairs, corporate communications, general counsel, human resources, and information security and so on. Keeping the participants engaged should be a top priority. Ensuring they are involved in the conversation throughout the session can be difficult, but you should try your best to accomplish this through injects specific to their area of responsibility. The storyline should also ensure that they’re engaged. The detailed scenario specific to your business will always beat out those power points that have standardized scenarios.

  1. Not Making it Visually Appealing – Get Creative

The saying “a picture paints a thousand words” has never been as true in the world of simulation exercises. The only difference is that it’s not just pictures that can create realism and keep participants engaged. It has never been easier to create simulation videos, audio recordings, manipulated images, simulated social media and much more. If you get creative and present a visually and even better sounding experience for you participants, you will always get more interaction and engagement from them.

Related:  10 Reasons to use LaunchPAD to Manage your Simulation Exercises

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  1. Not Having an Evaluation Criteria

Too often we see tabletop exercises being conducted without any thought into how they will be evaluated. In some ways this question should be answered early on in the exercise design process along with the question around objectives. Is there a specific standard that you’re required to follow or adhere to? Is there an industry regulatory requirement or best practice that may steer your evaluation criteria? If you have more than one location that will be going through an exercise, having a standardized evaluation criteria will allow you to benchmark one site (or team) against the others.

  1. Too Challenging or Not Challenging Enough – The Balance

Sometimes scenarios can be stretched too far and leave participants overwhelmed with all the various problems that are presented to them. This can lead to a reduction in active participation during the tabletop exercise. The same can be said for a scenario that is easy to handle and doesn’t test the team enough. Getting the balance right can be challenging.

  1. Ineffective Pre-Read Material – They Never Read It

Pre-read packages sent to exercise participants rarely get consumed. This is usually because they’re too long and the supporting email message doesn’t sound interesting. Consider recording a short video that highlights the basics and make it fun and informative. An alternative is recording an audio of the pre-read and background storyline. Make it sound like an event that your participants would want to attend. How many times have you received a video or audio exercise pre-read? One last thought – make a poster that makes it look like a movie. The poster can have the date and some basic information on it and can be accompanied with a short pre-read. Be creative (dare I say, different)!

Related: 12 Tasks to Organize your Tabletop Exercise

  1. Forward Thinking – What’s the Overall Exercise Strategy?

Do you have an exercise strategy? Is your Tabletop Exercise part of a programmed approach or is it just another one-off event? We often see organizations conducting multiple single tabletop exercises that are not connected or part of a structured or programmed strategy. Should you go from a Tabletop Exercise to a Functional Exercise and then a Full-Scale Exercise? Consider your strategy before you plan your next exercise.

Following a Process

If you follow a structured process (The 5 Steps is one I created), then you will be on the path to creating, delivering and evaluating an engaging and successful Tabletop Exercises. If you don’t have a solid path to success, then your session might be a flop and your audience will be unlikely to return the next time you run an exercise. Participants want to be engaged, so engage them.

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.