A Crisis Simulation exercise is a great opportunity for a team of professionals to come together and address gaps and issues they may have when it comes to an event.

It is a controlled environment for you to understand individual skillsets during a crisis and how the organization can communicate and coordinate during one.

As a tool, tabletop exercises (also known as TTX), when run effectively and correctly, can be extremely impactful not just to the team, but the organization.

However, as a facilitator of these events, you only have one short window to attain interest and commitment for future sessions. This is a vital step in your journey to building a culture of preparedness.

The preparation to get to a positive and effective level is simple. We recommend five key steps:

  1. Initial Preparation
    Begin a Business Impact Assessment (BIA), collect relevant Business Continuity documents and procedures. Begin to understand what’s already in place. Conduct interviews with the leadership team to understand their current objectives and hurdles. There might be other risk assessments that have already been done, review them too.
  2. Crisis Simulation Exercise and Scenario Design
    When your exercise objectives have been clearly defied, pick a scenario and align this to your desired outcome. What do you know this team need to work on the most?
  3. Final Pre-Exercise Preparation
    Pick relevant times of the week for the exercise (Thursday training sessions tend to offer the most concentration). Ensure your materials are correct and make sense. Send a final email no later than 24 hours before and no sooner than two days before to remind delegates of the exercise.
  4. Exercise Delivery and Evaluation
    Run an effective and well-thought-out exercise that is memorable and exciting. This should have both an introduction of the training and debrief to note down/discuss findings.
  5. Post Exercise Activities
    Communicate these findings and move onto updating the relevant plans. Immediately book in the next exercise.

Despite these steps being relatively basic, organizations are still getting the crucial details wrong and failing on producing crisis management tabletop exercises that work for their people.

Unknown to many crisis managers new to facilitating exercises, a tabletop exercise is one of the easiest forms of exercises you can design, promote, and run. Plenty of resource is now available and opportunities to outsource these exercises are more at hand than ever before with products like our eBooks as an example. `

Understanding how exercises are conducted, avoiding ‘death by PowerPoint’ scenarios and creating a better learning experience for your company can be achieved simply by requesting support.

Despite these options however, organizations are still getting it wrong.

Where you may be going wrong with your tabletop exercises & how to fix it



Most of us know that PowerPoints usually signal the beginning of the end for the average attention span. A TTX exercise is just that, an exercise run over table with a select group of people. Adding PowerPoint only distracts them from the task at hand. Yes, it’s understandable to set the scene, but this should be done over two slides maximum and then look to inject the event and information as you go, not across multiple slides. Steve Jobs of Apple Inc. simply pulled out the original iPod from his pocket after informing his audience he had “5,000 songs in his pocket”. The impact likely changed the company forever. (The exercise debrief can be done without a PowerPoint too, have a note taker there if necessary while this is conducted). Also try Prezi as your delivery tool.


Set expectations. Define objectives:

Your delegates to the exercise should know why they’re there, how it’s going to run and what they’ll get out of it. Your assumption is likely to send this in an email a week before, but they’ll never read it. Ensure you set the guidelines and answer these questions as soon as they’re in the room.

While ensuring they get it, consider the audience you are presenting to in this session. Are they the correct people for this type of TTX? Do you need to run two separate exercises? There is nothing more damaging than loosing half of your audience at the get go because they don’t believe it’s for them.

It is vital that both yourself and your class know the objectives of this session. This should be researched and stuck to in your design of the TTX (step 1 & 2 above).


Adding obstructions:

Once you’ve simplified and streamlined your PowerPoint or Prezi presentation (if you have one), you will likely begin to add handouts and scenario injects through small hand-outs. The alternative, if you’re stuck for time, is a ‘scenario initiator’ who will call out the different events and timelines as you go. These are good, but it could be better.

As Robert Burton mentioned in his post, consider adding further surprising obstructions to the event you’re practicing. People tend to not like change, but as we know, a crisis can bring with it many changes as it roles out, so consider adding this as you go.

For example: “we’ve had a major fire at our manufacturing plant”. Half way through, add that the Chief Firefighter believes this was arson and that you should investigate internally. Whatever adds that dramatic excitement and interest.

People missing is always a great concept that is easily missed when a large group is involved. You can read more here on these ideas.


Create a storyline:

Try to avoid the same crisis simulation tabletop exercise every year. Fires and natural disasters are the most used scenarios in a TTX because they are common and generally easy to run.

Your audience will react better to something they’ve never considered before, like a slow-release cyberattack that starts on a Friday afternoon or perhaps media trying to contact internal, junior employees for comments on a serious claim.

Stay away from scare tactics however! We want to ensure they’ve been able to think about their actions and communicate effectively, not be so nervous now they won’t perform when it does happen.


Evaluation Criteria:

It is common that a lot of people and organizations see a fire as a fire. They rarely evaluate the seriousness of the event until it’s too late. People also come with different opinions as to how serious an event is.

You should trial this during your tabletop exercise and record the response. This can then be discussed in the debrief with senior management where an official agreement on crisis levels can be determined.


Having a balance:

Don’t overwhelm your audience. If they are from your customer service department, don’t hand them IT issues far beyond their capabilities. Make sure it’s a TTX that relates to them but promotes team work and communication through a set challenge. Finding that balance is easy when you meet and discuss this with the heads of department, again emphasizing the importance of your preparation.

It’s OK to ask for help

The most common comment we hear after conducting or assisting with a TTX is “I wish I’d asked sooner”. Getting support and recommendations from the professionals that live and breathe these exercises every day will be your greatest move.

Ask yourself, ‘do I need support?’ If no, why not? If yes, what’s stopping you from seeking this? It can usually be the sign-off from your stakeholders on the investment. Nine times out of ten though, they will appreciate your case on creating a new and effective culture internally and be willing to see who you recommend.

It’s likely as a manager and experienced professional you’ve set your own personal expectations to get this task done, and made sure you’re the one who has done it. It’s more effective and reliable to outsource because, let’s be honest, you simply don’t have that sort of time available to you.

Starting with senior management and colleagues who are exceptional at assisting with your smaller tasks here, confirm you can now be left to your own devices to search further afield. This doesn’t just need to be contacting us, it may mean joining a community of likeminded professionals like those of the International Crisis Management Conference.

When you are part of a community that is as invested in crisis management as you are, you will gain further knowledge, ideas, and techniques to run the best tabletop exercises.

By attending events and conferences around exactly what you want to achieve, you’re also showing increased commitment to your stakeholders (not to mention adding to your own career).

Don’t miss the opportunity, the ICMC Boston Conference is available to book now.

In summary

Keep the whole process simple. When it gets too much, take a step back and ask yourself whether you are hitting the objective you spoke about in step one? Practice your own design and delivery before going ahead with the tabletop exercise.

Create the scenario to match your audience and objective. Deliver it to a high standard to ensure interest is built and return delegates remain focused. Record your own findings; you’re the expert, the stakeholders want to know your opinion! Think about what’s next? Ensure follow up sessions and findings are communicated and available, always.

And of course, ask for feedback and input from those that can help.

RESOURCE: How to Build a Strong Crisis Management Foundation.