You’ve settled on a crisis management framework to understand your goals in creating a crisis management plan.
You’ve written your plan. I can’t stress enough how important it is for you to exercise that plan.
Below I’ve included tips to help you think through a rich and rewarding exercise—even if your team is working remotely.
Why Exercise Crisis Management Plans?
Having a plan on a shelf or your company shared drive will only get you so far. You conduct fire drills, so employees know their muster stations and exits. Similarly, the crisis management teams need to work through their checklists to understand how an emergency plays out and make the crisis management plan part of their muscle memory.
It’s a human response to freeze, even briefly, when a problem occurs. People may deny a problem exists. They may fear consequences and avoid addressing the situation altogether. They may also feel overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness, which makes them withdraw. Everyone experiences these emotions differently and on a scale of intensity. But regular drills with your emergency procedures give people a structure to channel their thoughts and energies into proactively moving through the crisis.
Your goals in running exercises are to build people’s confidence in using a new plan. Or, for new team members, you want to familiarize them with your firm’s version of crisis management. For teams with more experience, you want to challenge them to react correctly while you stress them with noise.
Here’s how to make your exercises engaging and educational:
- Align exercises to company goals: Think about your company mission and your mission-critical processes. Build exercises that practice how to bolster essential functions and outputs. A scenario about key card locks not unlocking is not interesting.Playing a survival scenario that involves a Cylon invasion is far-fetched.
- Set well-considered goals: Choose 2 to 4 goals for each exercise. Get executive stakeholder or governance team buy-in for your aims.
- Set a lifecycle of exercises: To effectively incorporate all roles and scenarios, consider a lifecycle or series of exercises that play out over a year.
- Plan for scheduled and unscheduled drills: Incorporate exercises that people prepare for. But also plan for unscheduled exercises. Send an alert during off-hours so people understand the stress of switching their focus to problem-solving.
- Make exercises cross-functional: Of course, the crisis management team and executive leadership representative must attend. But, also be sure to include their alternates. And remember, the whole company needs preparation. Ensure local and departmental crisis teams and functional experts participate. For example, if your company produces dog and cat food, and you’re playing a contamination storyline, include your nutritionist and quality assurance (QA) experts.
- Write real scenarios: If your storylines and scenarios are not realistic, they won’t engage users. They will give up and lose interest in participating in exercises. If you’re crafting an exercise that is dependent on a realistic technical scenario, for example, you should include technical leaders from Information Technology as a part of your exercise planning process.
- Aim for not too difficult and not too simple: You won’t be challenging your team if an exercise is too simple. If it’s too complicated, you risk demoralizing participants. The purpose of these exercises isn’t to teach people about failure but to challenge and encourage them in their crisis handling skills.
- Make them sweat: At least a little. Exercises should induce a realistic level of stress.
- Create a safe space: People should feel stretched but not judged. Crisis management exercises are about helping people get better at what they do.
- Leaders should lead: Create storylines where your crisis leaders make decisions amid disruptions. Watch how they behave. Do they follow their checklists, or are they winging it?
- Make communications realistic: It’s a mistake not to test your internal and external communications plans. Communications can involve many pieces—drafting the message, approving the message, determining the basic message. Walking through this experience is especially important for new team members. Consider what actual employee and community requests and questions sound like so you can formulate responses. And, also consider how we communicate in this millennia. Contact during the exercise may be through SMS, Microsoft Teams, Slack, email, or all of the above – using these tools like they would be used in real-life communication will make the exercise that much more realistic.
- Add telephonic stress: Don’t forget that we still call each other on landlines and our ubiquitous mobile phones. How do people respond if a reporter calls? How do they talk to a live human in the heat of the moment? How do they process realistic inputs brought in via telephone, text (SMS), or other means?
- Keep it interesting? Crisis management exercises can be dull. As you write them, think about how you can keep participants interested and engaged.
- Jump in the hotwash: Conduct a debrief directly after your exercise. At the end of a two-hour exercise, take a 10-minute break, and then jump into 30-minutes of discussing what went well and what didn’t go well. Then, capture this in a report you can build on success and improve weaknesses in subsequent exercises.
How to Conduct Virtual Exercises
But everyone works remotely now, you say. That’s not an excuse. Here at Bryghtpath, we’ve tried and tested virtual exercises: they work and may present a more realistic way to learn roles and responsibilities in emergencies.
Remote work is not going away for a long time. But that doesn’t mean you can’t conduct crisis management exercises. In an actual event, you may be working from an alternate location or home or a shelter, so learning to coordinate and communicate virtually outside of an office setting builds your flexibility and skills.
However, virtual exercises have their unique challenges:
- Participants can easily get distracted if they fall into multi-tasking and watching cat videos because they can’t see what’s going on with everyone else
- Gathering, coordinating, and tracking remote events take some planning and learning
- Everyone must have access to your documents—exactly as in a real crisis
- Processes must be clearly defined and understood
Keeping People Engaged in Virtual Exercises
A virtual exercise is all about communication. You can keep people on their toes with substantial messages. Create provocative pretend media requests and articles to test the communication team’s response. Send mock regulatory inquiries—or demands—to see if the right people can find documents and respond appropriately. Add concurrent activity, where your customer service teams get calls from curious employees while your general counsel takes a call. Actual incidents are never linear. Also, consider adding secondary emergencies that require attention while the main crisis is playing out.
Embrace the Flexibility of the Virtual World
Before 2020, we usually staged exercises on-site in one or two conference rooms. Each event took about 2 hours to play through, with a 30-minute debrief.
In 2020, as everyone went remote, we staged an exercise over five workdays. Crisis teams met once or twice each day and worked in between calls. Participants complained that the extended exercise required a more significant time commitment. However, they also walked away feeling that the time span was more realistic and aligned to how incidents play out.
There’s something to crisis team members understanding the plan so well that anyone can randomly ask them questions about crisis management in their organization, and they can respond in detail. One way to help people gain that level of familiarity is to help them prepare for an exercise.
Send out a message 7 to 10 days before starting the goals of the exercise. Encourage participants to read the plan and the previous after-action reports to review recommendations. If functional representatives must interact, encourage people to meet beforehand to understand the basics of roles. Entering an exercise with this knowledge opens the way for more profound process questions.
Command and Control
As an exercise director, you need some way to control exercise play. For virtual training, open an exercise staff channel on Microsoft Teams or Slack. You and the other facilitators have your script and inform each other as you release emails or texts throughout the event. Using this channel, you can also update each other if you see players who need guidance. Use Microsoft Workflow to track documents throughout the event.
Crisis management exercises can be productive experiences for all participants, if you think through the action, branching, and messaging before you shepherd everyone into the exercise.
How to Learn More
We’ve pulled together some additional resources from across our website and body of work that you may find helpful as you consider your exercise strategy.
- Read our guide: The Ultimate Guide to Crisis Management
- Read our article: Crisis Exercises – Why are they important?
- Watch our Webinar on Leading Exercises that don’t suck on YouTube
- Case Study: Protecting Employees through Planning and Exercises for Active Shooter Incidents
- Managing Uncertainty Podcast: Episode #19 – Exercises are Boring
Want to work with us or learn more about Crisis Management?
- Our proprietary Resiliency Diagnosis process is the perfect way to advance your business continuity & crisis management program. Our thorough standards-based review culminates in a full report, maturity model scoring, and a clear set of recommendations for improvement.
- Our Crisis Management services help you rapidly grow and mature your program to ensure your organization is prepared for the storms that lie ahead.
- Our Crisis Management Academy is the complete online course that builds strong crisis leaders & effective crisis programs.
- Our Ultimate Guide to Crisis Management contains everything you need to know about Crisis Management.
- Our free Crisis Management 101 Introductory Course may help you with an introduction to the world of crisis management – and help prepare your organization for your next disruption.
- Learn about our Free Resources, including articles, a resource library, white papers, reports, free introductory courses, webinars, and more.
- Set up an initial call with us to chat further about how we might be able to work together.