You may be aware of what your organization needs to do to structure and staff its crisis management team, develop and write its crisis management plan, and successfully manage a crisis and its aftermath. However, this formula leaves a gap — some would say a large canyon — that we would like to identify and help you cross.

The gap lies in between creating and writing the plan and successfully managing a crisis.

The fact is, even once your team has developed a plan and written it down, it is still a long way from being able to confidently and skillfully steer the organization through a crisis.

There are two critical tools to help you bridge this gap: training and metrics.

The Secret to Doing Well

The secret to doing well in a crisis is to train ahead of time. To rely on your team’s improvisational brilliance in the heat of a disaster is like playing Russian roulette with your company’s future.

Many executives think that practice is for grinds and that star performers do things by the seat of their pants. When it comes to crisis management, this approach is a good way to lose your pants.

Having a strong crisis management training program is essential to your organizations becoming good at responding to emergencies.

The Importance of Training

In an emergency, people don’t rise to the level of the crisis; they rise to the level of their training.

There is a common idea that when people face challenges, they have the ability to rise to the occasion. Maybe in some situations that happens, but rising to the occasion in a business crisis is difficult. There are unique aspects to such a crisis that make effective improvising hard to impossible for untrained people. These include high potential costs to inaction or taking the wrong action, uncertainty, high stress, time pressure, strong emotion, and possible casualties.

If you haven’t practiced dealing with a crisis, you probably won’t know what to do if one comes.

Responding well in a business crisis is not a matter of performing like an action hero. It’s a matter of knowing a certain procedure and being able to follow it under pressure.

How to Mismanage a Crisis

Unfortunately, most companies skimp on crisis management training and drills, even many that invest a lot in business continuity. This is like preparing for a marathon by buying new running shoes but not running any training miles.

Under stress, people go back to their old ways of doing things, even when these are counterproductive. Training is how we discipline ourselves to respond in new and better ways.

Common Crisis Management Mistakes

The following are some of the ways we commonly see people mismanaging incidents at their organizations due to insufficient crisis management training:

  • One gung-ho person takes over and sidelines everyone else. This person does what they think is best rather than following the CM plan. As a result, many mistakes and omissions are made.
  • People focus on tactics at the expense of strategy.
  • People forget the crisis management plan priorities and spend precious time working on secondary matters.
  • The team loses situational awareness.
  • The team doesn’t document the information it receives and the actions it takes.

There is a lot of mismanagement when it comes to crisis management. People tend to freak out, even high-level executives. Most people don’t have a clue on how to conduct themselves in a crisis at an organization.

The Solution Is Training

There is a simple solution for all of the above problems: training.

It’s amazing what happens when you have a team and train them. A well-trained team responds in a lean, systematic way, smoothly addressing priorities in the proper order. 

It is true that some people are naturally more comfortable than others in dealing with high-pressure situations. Often such people grow up to become professional first responders. But even first responders train constantly to accustom themselves to operating under stress.

Training can help ordinary people get more comfortable in working under pressure and can increase the chances of their behaving effectively during an incident.

Many people misunderstand the nature of crisis management. It is not about acting like a hero in a movie. It’s about calmly following a rational, pre-considered procedure — even when the larger situation is anything but calm.

There is a sure-fire way to raise the ceiling of your company’s crisis management performance: having frequent and realistic training sessions.

Mock Disaster Exercises

The secret to performing well in a crisis is practicing ahead of time. How does a company get such practice? By holding mock disaster exercises.

Planning and conducting such exercises is a complex task with many potential pitfalls.

Planning a Mock Disaster Exercise

Here are 12 steps we suggest companies follow in planning a mock disaster exercise:

  1. Consider the disaster scenarios the team has used in the past, if any. You will either be devising a new exercise or reusing an old one. You might want to reuse an old exercise if significant gaps were exposed the first time and you want to replay the scenario to assess improvement.
  2. Review action items from any previous exercises, if applicable. Make sure any outstanding issues have been resolved and will not cause problems for the upcoming exercise.
  3. Consider the maturity of the team. Less mature teams should be given fairly basic exercises. Mature teams can handle more complex challenges.
  4. Identify the key objectives. Figure out what you are trying to stress test. Focus on a core set of objectives that you would like the exercise to meet (e.g., reviewing your CM documentation or making sure people are well-trained to perform in their roles). This is an area where less is more.
  5. Identify subject matter experts who can aid you in building the exercise. Planning a mock disaster exercise is much easier when you have the proper help. SMEs can be from inside or outside the organization or a combination of both. Leverage their expertise to help you build the scenario. Look for people who will help you build a viable scenario rather than simply pick your ideas apart. Avoid consulting people who will be participating in the exercise.
  6. Brainstorm with your SMEs. Meet with your subject matter experts to develop and refine your scenario. Validate that the exercise framework meets your objectives. Identify and plug gaps in the scenario. Clarify areas that might confuse people. You don’t want participants pointing out holes in the scenario.
  7. Keep it real. The scenario should be a plausible, real-life type of situation. No zombie apocalypses or Marvel superhero attacks. You want people to focus on how to respond, not on the zaniness of the scenario.
  8. Build a timeline and list of events. In cooperation with your SMEs, work out the details of the exercise, including how much time you will devote to it. Consider the maturity of the team in determining how long you will give them to respond to the events in the exercise.
  9. Build in a Plan B. When you plan the exercise, have a few different paths ready in terms of how the scenario might go. Sometimes the team makes choices that make the rest of your plan inoperable. Don’t force the team to go down a certain path just for the sake of your exercise. Be prepared to adapt to the team’s choices. Make sure you can keep feeding the team fresh, relevant problems no matter what choices they make.
  10. Revise the scenario as needed. Subject the scenario to a process of draft and revision. Work on it over time, adjusting it as people identify areas where it can be improved.
  11. Choose a facilitator. This is a critical decision. The choice of a facilitator can make or break an exercise. A good facilitator is knowledgeable about the scenario and organization. They are a strong, engaging leader who has the knack of hanging back and letting the team grapple with problems rather than overdirecting everything.
  12. Consider bringing in outside help. Still not sure how to proceed? Are you envisioning a large, complex exercise with many phases and participants? Want to make sure your scenario is sufficiently thought-out? If so, you might consider bringing in a business continuity consultant to help. Good advice in the planning stage can be the difference between a successful mock-disaster exercise and one that fizzles out inconclusively.

The key to performing well in a crisis is to train on how to deal with them ahead of time. In business continuity, we do this by conducting mock disaster exercises. By following the 12 steps given above, you can devise an exercise that will realistically challenge your team, improving their ability to respond to a crisis and boosting your company’s resiliency.

Exercise Objectives

To be effective, a mock disaster exercise must be designed to accomplish specific objectives. The following are examples of worthwhile disaster exercise goals:

  • Transfer knowledge to participants for them to use when a real event occurs.
  • Validate the process used by the team to respond to the crisis and resume business operations.
  • Validate the CM plan and its capabilities.
  • Assess the participants and their capability of following the CM plan and responding to the event.
  • Heighten the capability of the team.

Facilitating a Mock Disaster Exercise

Facilitating a mock disaster exercise is a critical, high-pressure task that takes a rare combination of skills. The choice of who will be the facilitator can make or break a mock disaster exercise.

Can a well-planned exercise fall apart if the facilitator is not highly skilled? It happens all the time.

The Role of Facilitator

Mock disaster exercise facilitators have to lead the exercise, but they aren’t really the leader. A facilitator who gives too much direction is undercutting the purpose of the exercise. At the same time, the facilitator can’t be a shrinking violet and let the exercise go in a direction that is irrelevant.

You can think of a good facilitator as being like the referee at a pro basketball game. When they do their job well, the players stay focused, the game seems to flow, and no one notices the ref is there.

A good facilitator frames the exercise and guides the participants and makes sure they stay on track. At the same time, the facilitator must hang back and let the participants be the ones who do the work and wrestle with the problems.

The role of the facilitator is to present the exercise scenario to the group, update people as new events occur, and keep things on schedule. The facilitator also provides breaks for participants during the course of the exercise.

The facilitator helps guide the scenario along its logical progression from incident to response to recovery and the resumption of business.

The Qualities of a Good Facilitator

What makes a good mock disaster exercise facilitator? Here are some qualities that most successful facilitators possess:

  • Command presence.
  • Charisma and enthusiasm.
  • Deep knowledge of the scenario.
  • Knowledge of the personalities and capabilities of the key participants.
  • A willingness to follow the agenda, coupled with the ability to adjust on the fly when needed.
  • The ability to engage people and get them communicating with each other.
  • A sense of humor.
  • The ability to tell when people need a break and the willingness to give it to them.
  • The ability to tell the difference between a productive, relevant discussion and a time-wasting, irrelevant discussion.
  • The willingness to let good discussions unfold and the ability to cut off or redirect bad ones.

Facilitating the Live Exercise

Eventually the planning comes to an end, and it is time to conduct the exercise. The exercise could last 10 minutes, or it could last five hours.

This is the period when the members of the CM team are presented with the disaster scenario and are trying to think their way through it.

For the facilitator, this is the time when they are in the thick of the action, using their skills and knowledge to steer the exercise and guide the participants while still letting them do the work.

Common Mistakes

Here are two common mistakes facilitators should strive to avoid when facilitating a disaster exercise:

  • Being overly wedded to the scenario. Developments during the exercise might cut the legs out from under your scenario. If that happens, you have to go with the flow. Reach for your Plan B. What’s important at this stage is not making people act out a script. It’s adjusting as you go and trying to meet the broad objectives of the exercise.
  • Trying to be “the man.” Being “the man” in this case means being the one who has all the answers. However, when the facilitator is “the man,” the participants lose out because they don’t get the chance to try to work the problems of the exercise on their own. This means the organization loses out because the people it will depend on to get it through a real-life crisis are not getting the training they need. If the facilitator is the center of attention, then the exercise is not the center of attention. This is not what you want.

Common Problems in Facilitating a Mock Disaster Exercise

In facilitating a disaster exercise, there are almost always problems of one kind or another.

Here are four common problems to be prepared for, along with suggestions on how to deal with each:

  • Participants criticize the scenario. No matter how hard you and your subject matter experts work at coming up with a good scenario, there are always participants who say, “That’s totally unrealistic. It could never happen. This is a waste of time.” This kind of talk can be fatal to the success of an exercise. It must be nipped in the bud. In framing the exercise in the beginning, the facilitator should let everyone know that no matter what they think of the scenario, the scenario itself is not up for discussion. The facilitator could say, “It’s similar to a real-life emergency. Even if you think the situation stinks, you have to accept the reality of the situation and work to improve it. That’s what it means to be a mature professional. It’s the same with this mock disaster scenario. Love it or hate it, you have to deal with it and try to fix it.”
  • The participants get too theoretical. This happens frequently. People spiral off into the stratosphere. For example, they start trying to solve the gaps identified during the exercise. This is not the time for that kind of discussion. This is the time for grappling with the situation presented in the scenario. If theoretical conversations spring up, the facilitator needs to cut them off and redirect everyone’s attention to working through the exercise.
  • The participants are not engaged. People yawn, sit stone-faced, stare at their phones or computers, or don’t say a word. It happens. Sometimes it helps to direct questions toward different individuals to try to draw them in. If someone’s totally ignoring you, working on their laptop the whole time, you could quietly mention to them during a break that you’ve noticed they’re busy and suggest they bow out and send their alternate. This can take guts, but sometimes it’s the right thing to do.
  • Other business intrudes. Sometimes other business intrudes on the exercise. People get pulled away to deal with production or business issues. If this happens, incorporate their unavailability into the exercise. It could happen in a real disaster, too. Tell the others to carry on as best they can without the missing person.

Facilitating a mock disaster exercise is demanding but rewarding. The facilitator plays a critical role in ensuring the organization’s staff could respond effectively in the event of a real disaster.

A facilitator needs to be crisp and confident so they can manage the participants and keep things on track. They also have to be willing to hang back, so the participants are given the chance to work through the problems of the scenario.

Finally, the facilitator has to be deeply knowledgeable about the scenario but also prepared to depart from it and adapt on the fly as circumstances require.

The World of Micro Mock Disaster Exercises

The typical mock disaster exercise is a complex undertaking that must be planned far in advance and requires a lot of hours from a lot of people. Such full-scale exercises are very important in terms of helping organizations prepare for disasters.

However, full-scale exercises are only one of many types of exercises available to organizations that want to improve their ability to deal with disaster. At the opposite end of the spectrum are micro mock disaster exercises.

What Are Micro Mock Disaster Exercises?

Micro mock disaster exercises are extremely brief disaster exercises that are typically included as agenda items during meetings being held for other reasons. A typical micro exercise lasts about 10 minutes. As everyone is sitting in the meeting, the facilitator sketches out a scenario for the participants and asks them questions about what they would do in that scenario.

The participants think about what they would do and share their responses. These discussions are very informal.

The Benefits of Micro Mock Disaster Exercises

The following are some of the benefits of micro mock disaster exercises:

  • They help keep your recovery team personnel sharp.
  • They help keep the business continuity process fresh in people’s minds.
  • They help your team get better at managing the urgent issues that regularly come up in day-to-day business.
  • They help your team get better at handling genuine crisis events.
  • They help your team develop its crisis management skills and chops.
  • They help you make business continuity part of your organization’s culture.

Micro Exercise Scenarios

Many different scenarios are appropriate for micro mock disaster exercises. The scenario can either be a small situation looked at in its entirety or a small part of a large situation.

The trick is isolating and identifying challenges whose scope is appropriate for a discussion of 10 minutes or so.

Here are some possible scenarios a company might use for micro mock disaster exercises:

  • Tell the participants there has been an outage at your organization. Ask them to find and open their business continuity plans.
  • One of your major vendors (specify which) has suffered an outage that will keep them offline for five days. Ask your participants what they will do to minimize the impact of the vendor’s outage on your organization.
  • Tell the participants they must evacuate the building and will not be able to return for a week. They have three minutes before they must be out the door. Ask them what they can do in that time to minimize the impact of the evacuation on the organization.
  • Say that one of the organization’s key vendors (specify which) has unexpectedly gone out of business. Ask the participants what they will do in response.
  • Tell the participants an active shooting is in progress at one of the company’s other locations. Ask them what the initial risks are and what actions they will take.

Conducting a Micro Exercise

The following are some tips for running a micro mock disaster exercise:

  • The typical order of business is to present the scenario, have the team address the immediate tactical needs of the situation, and have them look at the longer-term issues associated with their decisions.
  • Use a timer to keep people focused.
  • Document people’s answers and ideas.
  • Good opportunities for holding micro exercises are during weekly staff meetings, departmental leader meetings, and senior leadership events.
  • Managers should then hold exercises with their respective teams.
  • Micro mock disaster exercises can be either announced ahead of time or a complete surprise. Generally, exercises should be announced with groups that have little experience in disaster exercises. They can be unannounced for groups with more experience.
  • Since micro mock disaster exercises are highly informal, there is usually not any sort of written after-action report.
  • The BC team should seek and share informal feedback as a way of helping all the parties improve in their roles.
  • Test the emergency notification portion of your plan on a monthly or quarterly basis. Do this by sending people a message through your notification system and asking them to reply to you through the system acknowledging receipt.

Establishing a Micro Exercise Program

The first step in establishing an ongoing program of micro mock disaster exercises is obtaining management buy-in. Because micro exercises only take a few minutes and can be slotted into existing meetings, management tends to be more likely to agree to them than to other types of exercises.

To persuade management that micro exercises are worthwhile, tell them about the benefits to the organization’s readiness as discussed above. Mention that conducting micro exercises will help with audit and regulatory matters, if applicable.

Once management agrees, a schedule needs to be set up and scenarios devised.

In the beginning, the BC team is likely to facilitate the exercises. Over time, BC staff should shift to observer status allowing the departments to run the exercises themselves.

Full-scale mock disaster exercises are irreplaceable, but a program of micro exercises can bring great benefits at a minimal cost in disruptions. By keeping such exercises short but conducting them often, you can make disaster preparedness part of the culture at your organization.

Takeaways

  • The secret to performing well in a crisis is to conduct realistic training exercises ahead of time.
  • Follow the recommended steps for planning a mock disaster exercise.
  • The conduct of the facilitator is critical for the success of an exercise; a good facilitator keeps the team focused but lets the members grapple with the problem on their own.
  • Conducting frequent micro disaster exercises can help keep your team sharp and make crisis readiness part of your organization’s culture.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Michael Herrera & Richard Long

Michael Herrera is the CEO of MHA Consulting, a leading business continuity planning and information technology consulting firm. Herrera is the founder of BCMMetrics, which specializes in business continuity software designed to aid organizations in developing and executing business continuity programs. ... Richard Long is a senior advisory consultant and practice team leader for MHA Consulting, where he has successfully leads international and domestic disaster recovery, technology assessment, crisis management, and risk mitigation engagements.

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