5 ways to fix the problem facing crisis exercises

Wed, Jan 06 2016

Crisis simulation exercises are a staple tool of management training. They force executives to test how good their crisis management capability really is. And they help promote leadership and team-building. But they have one major problem.

Too many executives seem to have the false idea that once they’ve completed a scenario drill, the job of getting ready for a crisis is done. It’s a common, yet very dangerous misunderstanding. Because the team simulation is not the end of the journey to crisis preparedness. In fact it’s simply part of the beginning.

The reason this problem arises is not hard to find. Maybe the executive group decides it's time to update the old crisis management plan, so let's stage a scenario to see how well it works. Or maybe it’s the start of a New Year and it appears on the regular 'to do' list. But far too often the simulation is regarded as the finale to complete the process, a box-ticking exercise done and set aside until next time someone thinks crisis management is important.

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The reality is very different. A key outcome of any crisis simulation is to identify gaps and weaknesses in organisational preparedness. Problems need to be remedied and the whole process exercised again, not just adjusted in the hope that it will work better in the face of a real crisis.

To support effective crisis preparedness, there should be a formally organised simulation at least once a year, and preferably more often. And there are proven ways to fix the problem that executives think that doing it once is enough, and to overcome the perception of 'training fatigue.'

1. Avoid repetitious scenarios about predictable operational crises such as accidents, infrastructure breakdown and disasters. Mix it up with realistic managerial scenarios, for example about a cybersecurity breach or real or perceived executive wrongdoing. Research shows these crises are typically high on the list of what’s most probable.

2. Involve different people in the exercise beyond just the core team, such as designated deputies or alternates. There is always a high chance that key players are absent when a real crisis strikes. It will also improve 'bench strength'.

3. Spring a surprise exercise rather than scheduling weeks in advance. Real crisis don’t fit neatly into any executive timetable. Will the activation systems work at night or at the weekend?

4. Try different types of simulation. Rather than just the traditional tabletop exercise, go for a full scale production with external resources such as people playing the role of emergency responders, angry residents or nosey reporters. Or a 'war room' exercise primarily to test the operability of the designated crisis command location and/or the backup location.

5. Instead of a hypothetical scenario, get the team to workshop a real-life crisis or near miss which has happened to another organisation, perhaps in the same area or same industry. Would you have made the same mistakes? What would you have done differently? What can you learn from the other organisation’s experience?

Crisis preparedness is a marathon not a sprint, and simulation exercises are essential for success. But they need to be fresh, relevant and above all, regular.

Author: Tony Jaques PhD FPRIA, Director, Issue Outcomes P/L. 

tjaques@issueoutcomes.com.au

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