By |2019-06-10T15:59:21+00:00June 10th, 2019|0 Comments

Recurring Exercise: A Healthy Workout for Maximizing Crisis Readiness

Any good physician will characterize a customized exercise routine as essential to maintaining a healthy body. Similarly, recurring crisis exercises that are tailored to fit the organization’s needs are imperative to maximizing crisis readiness, including the efficacy of Crisis Response Teams (CRTs), response procedures, and plans.

Just as there are numerous physical fitness routines available, there are also many exercise formats and parameters to choose from that will test a company’s crisis readiness with a focus on areas such as automated incident notification, crisis impact assessment, emergency response capabilities, CRT member responsibilities, message development and spokesperson skills, etc. The exercise formats range from simple discussion-based conversations about a hypothetical situation to tabletop exercises involving multiple participant groups and functional areas to “war games” run as full-scale crisis drills that include internal as well as external stakeholders and simulate adversarial situations as realistically as possible.

All of these crisis exercise options present opportunities for role-playing activities that expose participants to realistic crisis scenarios to which they must respond. Developing effective crisis scenarios is a critical step within the crisis preparedness planning process. Crisis scenarios should be selected based on severity of impact, likelihood of occurrence, specific learning objectives, and other criteria. In order to maximize organizational and individual learning exercise participants should neither be involved in the crisis scenario selection process, nor should they have advance knowledge of which realistic scenario and corresponding set of facts they will respond to as part if the crisis exercise.

The ultimate crisis exercise goals are to uncover vulnerabilities in existing plans and procedures, as well as to help primary and backup CRT members and others who are involved in the crisis response process to understand their roles and responsibilities, enhance relevant knowledge and skills, and be fully prepared when a crisis happens. Typically, a time frame is presented to exercise participants, providing important reference points to analyze the situation, pose questions, and cultivate problem-solving skills. It is worth noting that the United States military and the U.S. Department of Homeland Security utilize war gaming scenarios on a regular basis to practice strategic planning and increase readiness for worst-case scenarios. Such approaches are proven methods for heightening situational awareness and optimizing crisis readiness.

Every crisis exercise is unique and tailored to the needs of the organization, its CRT members and their roles along with the degree of testing that a specific plan or set of plans should undergo. Whether it is testing the full breadth of all crisis management plans or just a specific portion, crisis exercises are often more effective if they are designed and facilitated by external experts who also serve as objective observers of the participants’ performance. Ultimately, the participants and the facilitating professionals will collectively identify gaps in existing response plans and procedures and provide guidance to develop and implement improvements following the exercise. The debrief and written documents generated following the exercise should also address the urgency of remedying the identified gaps.

Cultivating a healthy learning environment through recurring training exercises keeps crisis response plans up-to-date and the participants’ skills sharp, while implementing a formal training schedule ensures that organizational changes and other factors do not negatively affect crisis readiness. The recurring exercises should create a learning environment in which all participants can make mistakes, fully contribute, and hone their skills. 

In addition to testing the efficacy of crisis response procedures, plans and teams, tabletop and other crisis exercises build familiarity and consensus among exercise participants. Trust and relationships are forged and solidified, and participants gain confidence in themselves as well as the team. In fact, the importance of team building during a crisis exercise cannot be overstated because it lays the groundwork for seamless and successful teamwork during an actual crisis.

Developing effective crisis exercises and scenario-based training typically begins with a discussion to clarify: 

  • the exercise goals and related objectives,
  • the scope of the exercise,
  • the CRT members’ roles and responsibilities as crisis exercise participants, and
  • any specific situations, policies, procedures, equipment, or facilities that should be tested.

Next, the external consultant or designated employees craft a playbook for crisis exercise participants that outlines critical information, including specific objectives to be achieved. At the start of the exercise, playbooks are delivered to the participants along with a narrative that introduces the hypothetical crisis. Subsequently, a stringent timeline is shared with the exercise participants, providing a sense of urgency and communicating the fast-moving nature of the crisis at hand. Other tools may also come into play, including a stop-watch visual to indicate how long the team takes to make key decisions or visuals that propel the crisis story line forward. At times, healthy competition can be beneficial when two teams work through the same scenario. This helps facilitators and observers to uncover leadership potential of participants as well as identify where specific follow-up training may be required.

A comprehensive crisis exercise also calls for traditional and social media involvement. As such, exercise injects that trigger media inquiries, news media interviews and news conferences should be constructed to help designated mangers and spokespersons improve their skills. By putting them in the “hot seat,” potential and designated spokespersons are drilled in a safe environment and will be better prepared to perform well in a time of crisis. Similarly, exercise injects that simulate relevant traditional and social media activity allow exercise participants to assess the potentially negative impact of mock online content as well as to develop and implement an effective response in a controlled environment.

Following the exercise, a debrief report complete with observations and a full set of prioritized recommendations should be compiled. This is a retrospective analysis of actions taken during the exercise, assessment of whether or not stated objectives were met, and expert advice delineating steps that should be taken in order to meet the company’s crisis management goals.

Research shows that organizations whose managerial, operational and communication readiness is gradually increased long before a crisis happens experience significantly fewer crises and respond much more effectively when a potentially crippling crisis occurs. With so much at stake, it is essential to the long-term success of publicly listed and privately owned companies across industries to invest in recurring crisis exercises and related skills building. As stated by Confucius, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.” These are indeed wise words, because maximizing crisis readiness depends upon a long-term commitment to conducting recurring crisis exercises.

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About the Author:

- Oliver S. Schmidt - President & CEO of C4CS, LLC (c4cs.com) - 25+ years of consulting, training, and coaching experience in crisis management, strategic communication, and leadership - Presentations, management workshops, and client work in several dozen countries - Author of numerous peer-reviewed articles about crisis management, strategic communication, and leadership topics - Interviews with various domestic and international industry and mainstream media - Guest professor at leading universities in multiple countries - LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/oliver-s-schmidt--c4cs

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