Planning a Great Crisis Exercise

Exercises are an essential part of skills development and, for things like emergencies and crises, the only way to build these skills outside of an actual event, events that are thankfully few and far between. But creating a successful exercise takes a lot of work and planning – you can’t just throw some problems at a group of people and hope they’ll learn from the experience.

So how do you plan a great crisis exercise?

Scope the Exercise

This is the most important part of the whole process. If you don’t scope the exercise out clearly to begin with, you won’t be successful: in some cases, you can even make things worse. Scoping the exercise requires you to consider the following:

Participants. Who’s involved and what is their level of experience?

The development objectives. What needs to be learned or improved and are you familiarizing, practicing or testing? Are you skills-building or practicing a scenario-specific response?

Tempo and intensity. For example, a low-intensity tabletop is better for familiarizing a new team with a plan. In contrast, an experienced team would need a high-intensity simulation to practice all elements of their response.

Secondary objectives and sensitivities. Is there a new head of Comms who’s worried about their ‘debut’ in front of the management team? Was there a recent event that might make people sensitive to particular inputs or events? You won’t write these into the scope, but you should keep these at the back of your mind.

• Constraints. Any deadlines, budget, or geographical constraints that might affect how you build the exercise.

With all this in mind, you can write the scope or terms of reference (TOR) for the training. Here’s an example for Frank’s Coffee, an imaginary chain of coffee shops.

Frank’s Coffee – Example

Background and context. Frank’s Coffee recently updated its crisis management plan (CMP) and all potential crisis management team (CMT) members need to be familiarized with the new plan. The CMP update was required due to shortfalls in the old plan, highlighted in the poor response to the supply chain interruptions last year. The company wants to review its response to this kind of event, given that there are concerns that there are still weaknesses in its global supply chain.

Purpose and learning objectives.

A low-intensity simulation exercise will be used to:

1. Familiarize all CMT members with the new CMP.

2. Practice the response to a supply chain interruption.

3. Test the new mobilization and call-out process.


The Frank’s Coffee CMT, Crisis Communication Team, and Logistics team will participate in the exercise. Other staff are available to act as roleplayers, as are two Board members.

Prospective dates

The exercise will take place on July 15th from 0900 – 1200. Two, 2-hour training sessions have been scheduled on July 14th for training.


The CMT will assemble at the Frank’s Coffee main office in Boulder. The Logistics team will join remotely from their offices in Miami.

There would be some additional admin to agree, but a brief like this should be sufficient to plan your exercise.

Plan the exercise

Planning the exercise has already begun as you’ve established the general scenario, learning objectives, and who’s participating. You’ve also agreed on the type and intensity of the exercise. Now, you need to add these details to your framework.

I find that the best way to think of an exercise is like a play of three or four acts. Within each act, participants are fed information through a series of exercise inputs that update them on the situation or require them to do something.

• Act One – The introduction. This act introduces all the participants and establishes the setting and general context of the exercise. This is usually a relatively short act, but it sets the scene and tone for everything that follows. If you need to practice mobilization and call out, this happens here.

Act Two – The Challenge. This is where our participants are presented with a set of challenges to overcome. Most of the exercise activity will happen here. The inputs will add more and more detail to the situation as the exercise advances.

Act Three – The Dilemma (optional). Once most of the response is underway, you can introduce a twist for more experienced teams, particularly senior ones. This is not to catch them out or trip them up but rather to allow them to practice nimble thinking and adapt to the kind of changes that they would encounter for real.

Act Four – The Resolution. Always try to end on a high and allow the participants to feel they have succeeded. Otherwise, the feeling will be that they aren’t ready or their CMP is not fit for purpose. There might be a lot of lessons learned from the exercise to work on, but still try to end on a high by allowing them to wrap up the immediate issues they’ve tackled in the exercise.

Building an exercise on top of this framework is then just a matter of mapping the objectives to the acts and preparing a scenario that will allow you to move from start to finish.

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Writing the Scenario

Before you write the scenario, remember you need to be objectives-led, not scenario-led. By this, I mean that the exercise is a vehicle to allow the participants to achieve their objectives: not something where they’re forced to follow the scenario and hope they hit their objectives along the way.

Start by researching the kind of event you want to use, in the case of Frank’s Coffee, a supply chain event. A quick Google search will probably turn up some examples of Starbucks or Juan Valdez having similar issues, so use these to give you a general sense of how these start, develop and wrap up. You’ll also get an idea of how long things run for and the kinds of external issues (e.g., from regulators, stakeholders, and the media) that can crop up.

Then, you put this into a rough timeline and lay that over your three or four acts. From here, you need to write inputs to move the story along. Generally, these are four types of input.

• Situation updates provide information on what’s happening. These need to be unambiguous to avoid confusion. If you need to update the situation (which is what would occur in reality), make it clear that the old information was wrong and that the ‘truth’ has been updated. Don’t try to throw in too many red herrings, as you’ll derail the exercise.

• Directions to prompt an activity. This could be a regulator’s letter demanding an update or a request from a Board member for a briefing.

• Noise to simulate some of the confusion that they’d experience in reality. These should be ‘more of the same’, reflecting what they have learned from the major updates. Make sure that the contents of these inputs do not alter the course of events.

• Course corrections to steer them back on track if they get too far away from the main scenario. You’ll have these prepared and ready to drop in if the teams get distracted or too far off course.

Think about who or where the input will come from and the format. These could be simulated media clips, emails, or phone calls. Use your roleplayers to deliver these realistically.

Importantly, once you have drafted the exercises, read through the whole exercise and ask yourself:

• Are the objectives clear?

• Does the chronology include inputs to meet these objectives?

• Do you have contingencies to steer participants back to the main events pathway?

• Have you checked the technical aspects with an SME?

• Do you know the kinds of roleplayers you need to deliver this scenario?

• Do you have the resources to create

• the inputs required?

That will ensure your scenario holds together, that you meet the objectives, and that you’ll be able to build and deliver the inputs required.

Don’t Forget About the Logistics

No matter how good your scenario, an exercise will collapse if the necessary logistics aren’t in place. These include:

• Transport to and from the exercise site.

• Accommodation for travelers.

• Access to the exercise site for contractors or visitors.

• Access to IT systems and networks.

• Access to printers and photocopiers.

• Phones and an exercise phone & email directory.

• Meeting rooms (physical or virtual) for all participants, support teams, and exercise control.

• Stationery, copies of plans, phone charges, and power strips.

• Food and refreshments.

Staffing and Preparations

Even a small exercise requires several people to pull it off successfully. Some will see the event through from start to finish, whereas others are only required on the day.

Exercise Lead. The exercise lead is responsible for the successful delivery of the exercise. Their work starts with the scoping discussions and ends when the final report is submitted. They will typically also be the observer with the senior team or the team the exercise is focused on.

• Exercise Controller. The controller is the deputy to the Exercise Lead and will be heavily involved in developing the materials. They run the exercise on the day and manage the inputs and roleplayers.

• Observers. Each participating team should have an observer who will assess their performance, answer questions (if appropriate), and send feedback to exercise control if adjustments are required.

• Roleplayers. Roleplayers add realism to the exercises by acting as stakeholders, relatives, partners, or other relevant parties. They will make calls to deliver inputs or could play parts in the exercise, such as a journalist or Board member.

• Subject Matter Expert. Technical exercises need an SME to help with exercise development. They should also be in exercise control on the day, acting as a roleplayer and helping adjust the scenario if necessary.

• Technical support, admin support, and runners. Things can and will go wrong, so know who you can contact if you need admin and technical support. I like to have technical support around for the hour before and after the exercise starts but they can be on call after that. For larger, more complex exercises with multiple teams, it can be helpful to have someone who can ‘run’ between teams to move paperwork or messages or even shift equipment. It’s not a glorious role, but it can often save the day

No matter their involvement, ensure that all exercise staff are briefed on their role with, at minimum, written instructions. More detailed positions, like roleplayers or exercise controllers, require a detailed brief beforehand, ideally the day before the exercise. Have a tech rehearsal the day before the exercise to ensure that all systems are working, that visitors or contractors have necessary IT and comms access, and that inputs can be delivered to the participants.

TL;DR – Plan, Plan, Plan

There’s a lot more to think about as you’re planning your exercise, but a lot of that is detail-oriented. However, by using this framework, you’ll have covered 70-80% of what’s required to plan and build a successful exercise.

But the key is that you’re planning things out in detail ahead of time. Winging an exercise never works. (Never, ever, ever!)

I can say that with confidence, having participated in well over 100 exercises of various types (and having tried to wing a couple myself).

Instead, plan things out in advance. And even though this can seem like a lot of work to begin with, after a couple of reps, you’ll have a system and process to develop an exercise quickly.

But even if it takes a while – and some exercises take months to put together like this – the important thing is that you’re building an exercise that will be successful, challenge the participants, meet the objectives, and make them better able to respond when things go wrong.

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