In this episode of the Managing Uncertainty Podcast, Bryghtpath Principal & Chief Executive Bryan Strawser discusses how to create and conduct a rewarding crisis management exercise, providing tips to help you build a rich and rewarding exercise remotely or in person.
Related Episodes & Blog Posts
- Blog Post: 5 Ways Coaching Can Help Your Business Continuity and Crisis Management Program
- Blog Post: How to Create and Conduct a Rewarding Crisis Management Exercise
- Episode #88: What is the goal of crisis management?
- Episode #117: What Successful Crisis Management Looks Like Internally
- Episode #132: 7 Business Continuity Exercise Scenarios
Hello, and Welcome to the Managing Uncertainty Podcast. I’m Bryan Strawser, Principal and Chief Executive here at Bryghtpath. And in today’s episode, I’d like to talk about how to create and conduct a rewarding crisis management exercise. So you’ve settled on a crisis management framework to understand your goals in creating a crisis management plan. You’ve written your plan, and now I can’t stress enough how important it is for you to exercise that plan. Here, in this episode, I want to talk through tips to help you think about how to build a rich and rewarding exercise, even if your team is working remotely.
So let’s start with why you should exercise crisis management plans. Having a crisis management plan on a shelf or on your company share drive is only going to get you so far. You conduct fire drills so employees know how to muster themselves and exit. In a similar way, your crisis management team need to work through their checklist to understand how an emergency plays out and make their crisis management plan part of their muscle memory. It’s a normal human response to freeze, even briefly, when a problem occurs.
People will deny that a problem exists. They might fear the consequences and avoid addressing the situation altogether. They might also feel overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness, and that makes them withdraw. Everyone experiences these emotions differently and on a different scale of intensity, but regular drills and exercises with your emergency procedures, give people a structure on how to channel their thoughts and energies into proactively moving through the crisis. Your goal in running an exercise is 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 that are more experienced than you want to challenge them on how to react correctly while you stress them with noise and the inputs from the exercise.
So here are some ways to make your exercises engaging and educational. The first is to align your exercises to your company’s goals. Think about your company’s mission and mission-critical processes, and then build exercises that practice how to bolster those essential functions and outputs. A scenario about key card locks not unlocking is not that interesting, but playing a survival scenario that involves a Cylon invasion is just too farfetched. I threw that in there for you Battlestar Galactica fans.
The second is to set well-considered goals. You should pick two to four goals for each exercise and make sure you have an executive stakeholder or your governance team buy-in for those goals. You should set a life cycle of exercises. You want to incorporate all roles and scenarios. So think about a life cycle or a series of exercises that play out over a year. You should plan both scheduled and unscheduled drills, incorporate exercises that people are going to know about and prepare for, but you should also plan unscheduled exercises. Send off an alert during off-hours so people understand the stress of having to shift their focus to problem-solving. You’ll also find out, I guarantee the first time you do this, that some folks are not paying attention to their phones or computers during off-hours. So on-call and after-hours processes might not always work until you’ve practiced them and that becomes part of the routine.
Next is to make your exercises cross-functional. Of course, your crisis management team and your executive leadership must attend these exercises, but also make sure to call upon their alternates. And remember, the whole company needs preparation. Local, and departmental crisis teams, and functional experts should participate. For example, if your company produces dog and cat food, and you’re playing a contamination storyline, well, bring along your animal nutritionist and your quality assurance experts.
Next is to make sure that you write real scenarios. If your storylines and scenarios are not realistic, they will not engage users. They’ll give up, and they’ll lose interest in participating in your exercises. If you’re crafting an exercise that’s dependent upon a realistic technical scenario, for example, well, you need to include technical leaders from your technology team, your IT team, as a part of your exercise planning process. With your exercise, you want to 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 will risk demoralizing participants. The purpose of your exercises is not to teach people about failure but to challenge and encourage them in their crisis management skills. Make them sweat, at least a little. Exercises should induce a realistic level of stress, but we also want to create a safe space where people are stretched but not judged. Crisis management exercises, again, are about helping your team get better at what they do.
In your exercise, the leader should lead. You want to create storylines where your crisis leaders make decisions and amid disruptions. Watch how they behave. Do they follow their checklists or are they just winging it? Are they following the process that has been defined or are they doing something else?
You should make communication in your exercise realistic. It’s a mistake not to test your internal and external communication plans. Communications can involve many pieces, drafting the message, approving the message, determining the basic message, determining your key speaking points. Walking through that experience is especially important for new team members. Consider what actual employee and community requests in questions sound like so you can formulate responses, and also consider how we can communicate in this millennia. Contact through the exercises, maybe through SMS, Microsoft Teams, Slack, email, WebEx, Zoom, or all of the above. Using these tools like they would be used in real life 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 will 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 through the telephone, through SMS, and text, and through other means? Keep your exercise interesting. Crisis management exercises can be dull. As you write them, think of about how you can keep participants interested in moving and engaged, and then jump in at the hot wash. Conduct a debrief directly after your exercise. At the end of a two-hour exercise, for example, take a 10-minute break, and then jump right into 30 minutes of discussing what went well, and what didn’t go well, and what will we do differently. And then capture this in a report that you can use to build on success and improve your opportunities, your weaknesses in subsequent exercises.
Now, I want to talk just briefly about conducting virtual exercises. And you’re going to tell me, “Well, everybody works remotely now.” But that’s not really an excuse. Here, at Bryghtpath, we’ve tried and tested virtual exercise. They work and they work well. And in a lot of cases, in today’s workplace, they might present a more realistic way to learn roles and responsibilities in an emergency. Remote work is just not going to go away. And that doesn’t mean that you can’t do crisis management exercises. In an actual event, you might be working from an alternate location, or from a home, or from a temporary shelter, or elsewhere, so learning how to coordinate and communicate virtually, outside of an office setting, will help build your flexibility and skills.
But virtual exercises have some unique challenges. Participants can easily get distracted if they fall into multitasking and watching cat videos because they can’t see what’s going on with everyone else. Gathering, coordinating, and tracking remote events takes some planning and learning. Everyone must have access to your documentation. Exactly as in a real crisis, and your processes need to be clearly defined and understood. Virtual exercises are all about the inputs and the communication. You can keep people on their toes with substantive messaging, keep provocative, pretend media requests, and articles going to test the communications team response. Send mock regulatory inquiries or demands to see if the right people can find documents and respond appropriately when the stress is on. Add other concurrent activities, like when your customer service teams get calls from curious employees, while your general counsel is dealing with something else. Actual incidents like these, we know they’re never linear. Also, think about adding a secondary emergency that requires attention that has nothing to do with the main crisis, even though the main crisis is playing out. And that will happen, of course, in real life.
Before 2020, we usually thought about doing exercises on-site in a big conference room or theater setting. An event might take two hours to play out with a 30-minute debrief. But in 2020, as things went remote, we started staging exercises closer to real-time, over multiple days. Crisis teams would meet once or twice each day and work on issues between calls. Participants complained that the extended exercise required a more significant time commitment, but they also walked away feeling that the time span was more realistic and more aligned to how an incident in real life would play out. There is something to crisis team members understanding the plan so well that everyone or anyone can randomly ask them questions about crisis management in their organization, and they’re able to respond in detail.
One way to help people gain that level of familiarity is to help them prepare for an exercise. What our approach is 7 to 10 days out from starting the exercise. We send out a message that lays out the goals. We encourage participants to read back through their plan and their previous after-action reports to review recommendations and action items. If functional representatives must interact, we encourage people to meet beforehand, to understand the basics of roles. Internet exercise, with this knowledge, opens the way for a more profound exercise, with more profound findings, and more questions.
As the exercise facilitator or director, you need a way to control exercise play. In virtual exercises, open and exercise staff channel in Teams or Slack or some other collaboration tool, 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, for example, if you’re using Teams and Office 365 to track documents throughout the event. Crisis management exercises can be productive experiences for all participants. If you think through the action, the branching, and the messaging before you shepherd everyone into the exercise, you can have a great experience in person or virtually with your exercise.
Bryghtpath is built to manage exercises for Fortune30 corporations, law enforcement at all levels, academic institutions, and public sector, and nonprofit agencies. Our consultants are even certified in the Department of Homeland Securities Exercise and Evaluation Program, or HSEEP. Learn more about how we can help you with crisis management and exercise needs at our website at bryghtpath.com, or contact us for an initial conversation. That’s it for this edition of the Managing Uncertainty Podcast. We’ll be back next week with another new episode. Be well.