A crisis management team can only truly be ready for a crisis when it has evaluated its preparedness through crisis simulation tabletop exercises.

The Tabletop Exercise

Tabletop Exercises bring together heads of lines of business and leaders of business processes to evaluate their state of readiness for crisis management, disaster recovery and business continuity. Realistic scenarios are presented in an engaging, low-stress environment, where teams walk through their plans for responding to an unfolding situation. Participants are presented an evolving set of facts and circumstances that require them to make a series of real-time decisions. The goal is to test both their established plans and their ability to respond to unanticipated events.

How to prepare for the tabletop exercise

Start with exercise objectives. What do you want to achieve? This will form the basis of how your planning and exercise delivery will unfold. It’s important to select the correct group or groups that you’d like to be involved in the tabletop exercise. This again will be driven by the objectives that you set out in the very first step. Once you’ve determined the objectives and the participating teams, it will be much easier to create your crisis scenario. The next main goal is to create a scenario that helps you validate the objectives that you’d like to accomplish. This can be challenging sometimes as many organizations overreach with their objectives and often never schedule enough time to accomplish them.

There are several other things that need to be prepared at this stage. For a more detail list, see this article: 5 Questions Prior to your Tabletop Exercise

The way you deliver will make or break your simulation exercise

Game day can be filled with anxiety for some less-experienced personnel. One of the main reasons that the participants become anxious is that they’re not prepared for their crisis role and don’t understand the responsibilities. Another reason might be that they haven’t received a good pre-exercise briefing through pre-read documents or pre-read videos which can be more effective than documents.

The way the exercise is delivered is very important. Being able to manage a group of leaders can be challenging. Exercise time management is also another consideration. If the discussions are going over time, you should document what the discussion or issue is and then move on. This will ensure you achieve all your objectives by getting through the remainder of the scenario.

For more tips on how to deliver an exercise, go to my eBook: 5 Steps to Creating Crisis Simulation Tabletop Exercises

The tabletop exercise is not complete without this important step

Why do we ultimately conduct tabletop exercises? It’s to improve our readiness and make us more resilient. An AAR (After Action Report) is a document that highlights the findings from the simulation exercise. In general, the report should have the following pieces of content:

  1. An overview of the exercise (call it an executive summary)
  2. A list of who (by name) participated in the exercise
  3. A list of the major issues that were identified
  4. A list of the recommendations for improvement based on the issues that were identified
  5. An action plan on who and how those improvements are going to be implemented
  6. Photos of the sessions (as long as privacy is not an issue)

Some organizations will conduct a review of the results prior to finalizing the AAR.

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We did it, now what?

Once a tabletop exercise has been completed, the organization should consider a follow-on tabletop exercise once any gaps have been rectified. If the tabletop exercise was part of a larger crisis management exercise program, then the results should be compared to the other teams’ results to get an overall picture of the organization’s preparedness.  Additionally, the organization might then want to advance to a functional exercise where other areas (teams / locations) are part of the exercise. This takes the organization to the next level in terms of its preparedness.

Related: Don’t let a failure to practice hurt your operation in the new year

So, what did you learn about tabletop exercises?

Once you’ve conducted a crisis management tabletop exercise, you will be able to evaluate your crisis team’s ability to respond to, manage and recover from crises much more effectively.

Remember, planning your exercise correctly is essential to its success. Creating clear and achievable objectives is the first and most important step. Once this has been completed the scenario design begins. The exercise then takes place, and finally you develop your After Action Report that highlights what gaps were uncovered and how they can be fixed.

Finally, the next step might be to consider advancing to a functional exercise so you could validate several teams and locations at the same time.

I’m in need of some help in putting together a crisis simulation tabletop exercise

Are you ready to put your team through a crisis simulation exercise? During a PreparedEx exercise, participants are placed into simulated situations and tasked with applying decision-making methodologies as they determine which courses of action to take in response to each. This type of activity is designed to:

  • Stimulate thought processes
  • Focus the team within a specific situation
  • Enhance team building and trust
  • Strengthen the team’s understanding of the crisis management strategy, processes, plans and other related information
  • Identify any issues, challenges and / or assumptions
  • Identify resources necessary to overcome any issues, challenges and / or assumptions
  • Identify means of overcoming any identified issues, challenges and / or assumptions
I want to know more about how to conduct crisis simulation tabletop exercises

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.