Are you responsible for designing and delivering crisis management tabletop exercises for your organization?


The Ultimate Guide to Crisis Management Tabletop Exercises is an eBook written by PreparedEx that explains in detail how your organization can develop and conduct tabletop exercises that will test and improve the efficacy of its crisis plans and the functioning of its crisis response teams. To download the eBook, go to the PreparedEx homepage. Here’s a quick summary of each chapter: 


Chapter OneTabletop Exercises for Corporations Introduction  

Training one’s mind, and those of an entire leadership team, to make decisions despite uncertainty and ambiguity is an especially important skill setone that’s very difficult to acquireTabletop exercises, sometimes known as “war games” are one of the few techniques that have successfully accomplished decision-making training. Tabletops are proven to be effective at helping organizations assess and improve their crisis preparedness. 


Chapter TwoExercise TypesObjectives and Evaluation Criteria 

Exercise Types 

Most organizations involved in the conduct of exercises employ the US Federal Government’s identification of five different levels of exercises, ranging from the simple to the very elaborate. This eBook is focused on Tabletop Exercises a facilitated, group analysis of an emergency situation in an informal, stress-free environment. This is the simplest type of exercise to conduct in terms of planning, preparation, and coordination. 

There are basically two types of tabletop exercises — simple and enhanced. A simple tabletop exercise is designed to elicit constructive discussion as participants examine and resolve problems based on existing operational plans and identify where those plans need to be refined. An enhanced tabletop exercise is an interactive exercise that helps test the capability of an organization to respond to a realistically simulated crisis. The exercise tests multiple aspects of an organization’s operational and communication plans. This type of exercise will require much more planning, preparation, and coordination than a simple tabletop exercise.  

Tabletop Exercise Objectives 

One of the most important, if not the most important step, in the design and preparation of a tabletop exercise is to determine the exercise objective(s). At every step during the development of the exercise, exercise planners should be asking themselves and answering: Why are we doing this? What are our objectives? 

Once the objectives are determined, you then decide what game mechanics and scenario will allow you to address the stated objective(s) during the exercise  

Tabletop Exercise Evaluation  

Tabletop exercises should be carefully evaluated to determine whether exercise objectives were met and to identify opportunities for program improvement.  

The Hotwash  

The first formal evaluation immediately at the close of the exercise is the “hot wash” – a brief group discussion. The hotwash information compiles the initial impressions and observations of players and controllers of the exercise and identifies the key issues and findings that emerged during the exercise. This vital information will be further developed, analyzed and used in preparing the comprehensive AfterAction Report (AAR) 

Related:  How to Ensure Your Crisis Management Tabletop Exercises Create a Buzz


Chapter ThreeScenario & Master Scenario Events List Development 

Scenario Development 

Once the objectives have been determinedthe exercise scenario can then be developed. 

A scenario (really a storyline) provides a plausible starting point or setting for the exercise participants to examine challenges as well as responses to a crisis (e.g., hurricane, flooding, earthquake, explosion, cyberattack, workplace violence, contaminated products, etc.). It also is a vehicle for your exercise injects – the information that’s introduced during the exercise to advance the plot of the scenario. Injects are presented to the participants in varying formats that might include simulated telephone calls, media reports (including videos), scripted text handouts, etc. The injects will be detailed in the Master Scenario Events List (MSEL) 

MSEL Development 

Used by the exercise controller, the MSEL serves as a script that guides the exercise. It identifies the timing and summary content of all key events, messages or injects, contingency messages, and can include anticipated responder actions for the duration of the exercise. 

Each inject included in the MSEL is intended to provide the participants in the exercise with information that should spur some form of action on their part 


Chapter FourTabletop Exercise Development, Process and Evaluation 

This chapter discusses in more detail the exercise development, process and evaluation of the exercise. The tasks or responsibilities identified below can be accomplished by the organization alone or in coordination with an outside contracted exercise organization.  

Exercise Development 

During the course of preparing for the exercise, the “exercise coordinator,” that is, someone from within the organization, and the individual(s) designated or contracted to prepare and deliver the exercise, should be in constant contact to coordinate their actions. 

The exercise coordinator’s responsibilities include: 

  • Creating a Design Document 
  • Selecting Coordination and Design Teams 
  • Determining Objectives and Issues 
  • Determining the Scope and Extent of Play 
  • Determining Means of Assessment/Evaluation 
  • Establishing Work plan and Schedule 
  • Determining Resource Requirements 
  • Ensuring Senior Leadership Approval 


Related:  3 Reasons to Invest in a Tabletop Exercise


Exercise (Game) Process 

Information (an inject) is presented to the participant or participant teams in varying formats during the course of the crisis simulation exercise. Teams then determine what courses of action (COA) to take, and then respond accordingly. The next inject(s) are then presented and the cycle continues until the exercise is completed. Participating teams and individuals may receive different information (injects) at different times.  

During the course of the exercise there will be times when an issue surfaces that cannot be resolved because of exercise time constraints. We define an “issue” as something whose resolution is important to the organization’s crisis or business continuity plan, but that cannot be resolved during the time available for the exercise. These issues are placed on an “Issues Board” and are identified as gaps that need to be fully addressed and resolved at a later time (i.e., post-exercise).  


Chapter FiveEvaluation, AfterAction Report and Summary 

AfterAction Report 

An AAR is used to provide detailed feedback on the exercise. It summarizes exercise events and analyzes performance of the tasks identified as important during the planning process. It evaluates if exercise objectives had been achieved, and if not, why not. The AAR also reports on the overalcrisis management capabilities of the organization and documents any gaps in plans, policies, and procedures. 

To prepare the AAR, exercise evaluators analyze data collected from the hot wash, debrief, Participant Feedback Forms, and other sources (e.g., plans, policies, procedures, criteria developed for the exercise, standards within the industry, etc.) and compare actual results with the intended outcome. The AAR is the most important resource for improving the organization’s crisis preparedness. 


Exercises are your “bridge” to an effective crisis management program. They are the way you train your staff, validate your plans, and have the confidence that your organization can successfully recover from a crisis. With a bit of careful planning, creativity and vision, you can develop not just a good tabletop exercise, but a great tabletop exercise, one that will really help you develop your program, build your plans, and mature your team. 

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.