tabletop exercises

To NASA, fifty years ago and up to this day, NASA’s life-or-death learning is achieved through emergency simulation exercises.


Gerry Griffin knows a thing or two about responding to risks. He was the Mission Control flight director for all of NASA’s Apollo Program manned missions, including all six lunar landings.

When asked in a recent interview how NASA prepared for the countless life-threatening emergencies that could have occurred on the Apollo missions, Griffin, now 86-years-old, replied, “You can only be prepared for the unpredictable if you learn everything…”

To NASA, fifty years ago and up to this day, NASA’s life-or-death learning is achieved through emergency simulation exercises. It’s only through simulations that astronauts in space and the thousands of technicians on the ground can learn everything they possibly can about their enormously complex system of moving parts in order to respond successfully to the unpredictable.

To any organization seeking to improve its preparedness for the unpredictable, NASA’s principle applies. Simulations enable an organization’s response team to practice on incidents that in real life could spell disaster: a ransomware attack, a hurricane, an active shooter, etc.


Tabletop exercises bring together the organization’s leaders and subject matter experts in a relatively low-stress, informal environment so they can learn “everything” — particularly these Four Lessons:


1. You’ll learn everything about your PLAN

Many organizations have emergency response plans, but the question for them should be, has your plan ever been tested to prove it’s working? An untested plan being put to the test in an actual emergency is a recipe for disaster.

Clearly, as NASA has proven, a plan that’s regularly tested through simulations is the only sensible way to improve its effectiveness.

The tabletop exercise simulations will reveal the strengths and weaknesses of your plan, including

  • Did the plan work to convene the team quickly. Did the plan allow for some team members being unreachable? Did unreachable team members have backups?
  • Was all the plan’s contact information for team members, subject matter experts, contractors, media contacts, etc. fully up to date?
  • Was there a decision-making process outlined in the plan, and was it followed?
  • Did the plan contain various kinds of pre-approved crisis-specific messaging and documents that could quickly be finalized and circulated when needed during an actual crisis?


2. You’ll learn everything about your RESPONSE TEAM

  • Did team members work well together?
  • How well did they communicate with each other?
  • Was there a regular briefing cycle that kept all team members fully abreast of a changing situation?
  • Did the team follow a decision-making process?
  • Did the designated spokesperson(s) for the organization competently deliver your crisis-related messages to various audiences such as to the news media? To employees? To Customers? Had spokespersons recently received media and presentation training to ensure their top performances?


3. You’ll learn everything about your TECHNOLOGY

  • If, for example, the training scenario is a cyberattack that compromises your computer systems, did you have alternative technology that enabled continuous communications among your response team members? With employees? With outside agencies, such as local law enforcement or the FBI?
  • Were digitized crisis plans in place that were accessible through platforms outside of the one that was attacked?
  • What technology was used to monitor the unfolding situation, including media and social media activity, and how did its operators communicate their findings to the response team?
  • Did your disparate platforms integrate well? For example, was HR’s roster of employee contact information or your mass notification app able to work with the incident response software platform you may be using to manage your response?

Related: 7 Essential Crisis Simulation Tabletop Exercise Tips


4. You’ll learn everything about IMPROVING YOUR RESPONSE

  • Post-exercise, you’ll want to do a meticulous evaluation to answer the question, how well did your entire system of response – your plan, your team, your technology – function? Did each component work individually as well as in coordination with each other? And what are your next steps to improve your response system’s functioning?
  • Did the tabletop exercise expose gaps in communications or operations? Did the three components of your responses system — plan, team and technology – operate in a coordinated manner? What steps will you take to close those gaps?


Simulation exercises are the only way to prepare for the unpredictable. They helped put a man on the moon, and tabletop exercises using simulations will certainly help your organization respond more effectively to an emergency.


* * *