How To Run a Great Crisis Exercise

A great exercise presents participants with a near-real environment that will apply stress to them, their plans, and their processes. Like a good gym session, they’ll finish tired, and a few things might be sore, but they’ll be better, stronger, and faster not long afterward.

However, it’s just as easy to put together a training session that leaves everyone hurt, confused, anxious, and feeling less prepared.

So how can we deliver a great exercise? One that will make a team much more crisis ready by the end?

Everything starts with thorough planning, so it’s essential that you carefully scope and plan the exercise from the outset. (If you aren’t sure what’s involved in planning a simulation, I’ve written a guide here.)

But let’s say you’ve done all that, and the exercise is now a few days away. What should you be doing as the exercise lead (the person responsible for delivery)?

You might be surprised to hear that my view is that you should be preparing to do as little as possible.

The Garfield Approach

This might be the first blog post to tell you to be lazy, but that’s exactly the mindset I’d like you to adopt for exercise day. Ask yourself, ‘how can I do as little as possible once the exercise starts?’

For me, the ideal is only to have to make two calls during the whole exercise: one to start things off and one to end it.

Now, I may have other roles on the day – maybe I’m observing a team or also acting as exercise controller – but as exercise lead, I want to do next to nothing once things kick off.

The reason for this is simple: I’ve learned that you can’t control an exercise. Moreover, if you try to, you’ll spoil the experience for the participants. 

Think about it: how can you teach a team to respond to realistic inputs and practice high-level decision-making if someone is guiding, interrupting, and nudging them the whole way through?

So instead of trying to maintain an iron grip on the whole thing (which is sometimes called railroading – there’s only one way through the exercise, and participants are forced to follow that track), you need to create a space for the participants to play in.

And you create that space well in advance, not while the exercise is underway.

Creating the Conditions for Success (and Sloth)

Notably, that space you create isn’t infinite: in fact, there are strict boundaries in place, and participants don’t have complete freedom of action.

But you create the illusion that they do. 

That takes some work, but it’s much easier than you think if you prepare appropriately. Here’s how.

Have a Solid Foundation. A lot has already gone into exercise planning: you’ve made sure that the scenario is realistic, the style and tempo of exercise are appropriate, and that they’ll hit the training objectives. You’ve also spent a fair amount of time ensuring the logistics are in place. That way, you have a sound plan for the exercise, and all the support and resources you need are lined up. 

Prepare your team. Gather your team and conduct a ‘page-turn’ where you review the entire exercise instruction. Start by discussing what needs to happen a few hours before the exercise start (STARTEX) and walk everyone through to the end of the hot debrief. Ensure they know where they need to be, what they need to do, and that they understand their role. Answer any questions and identify any last-minute kinks to iron out. Do this a few days before the exercise so you have time to make adjustments. All exercise staff need to attend except roleplayers, who the Exercise Controller can brief before the exercise starts. 

This is the first of two rehearsals. 

Check the technology and logistics. The second rehearsal is a tech rehearsal: a full check of all the systems and technology you’ll rely on during the exercise. Phones, conference rooms (physical and virtual), video inputs, network access: check them all. You don’t need everyone for this; usually it’s the exercise lead, the controller, and someone from the participant’s side. Have a similar check-in with the admin point of contact to ensure all the logistics are in place for the exercise. Again, do these checks a day or so out so you have time to fix any problems.

Brief the participants. Make sure you’ve issued joining instructions to explain the schedule for the day, the exercise objectives, what they need to do beforehand, and where they should go that day. You may want to give them some hint of the kind of event they’ll face very generally, but that depends on the team. There are pros and cons either way, so it’s a judgment call on your part. (Whatever you do, don’t give anyone a brief on the whole scenario. This almost always damages the exercise in some way – for them and for you – so this foreknowledge is counterproductive.)

Troubleshoot with the exercise controller. Running through the whole day with the exercise controller and asking each other ‘what if…?’ is where you really set the conditions for success. This session isn’t to fix problems – you should have done that by now – but to make sure that you’re both clear on where the boundaries are, how you can identify when the participants are getting close or off track, and how you can steer them back towards their objectives. Remember, this isn’t the first time you’ve reviewed the scenario – you did something similar once the exercise chronology was drafted. But this final check-in is where you assure yourselves that no matter what happens, you can give the participants the best chance of success.

Lo and behold, that gives us a five-step listicle of how to run a great crisis exercise.

  1. Scope and plan the exercise thoroughly.
  2. Brief your team in detail.
  3. Check the technology and logistics.
  4. Brief the participants
  5. Play ‘what if’ with the controller.

Unfortunately, there’s one other element and it’s harder to pull off.

Sit Back and Relax

Donovan: You don’t seem alarmed.

Abel: Would it help? 

Tom hanks (Donovan) to Mark Rylance in Bridge of Spies

In the movie Bridge of Spies, Hank’s character is surprised that Rusian spy Rudolf Abel, played by Mark Rylance, seems unconcerned as they wait to hear Abel’s sentence for espionage. But, as Abel points out, there’s little he can do to alter the course of events now.

Now I’m not advocating spying on the US, but I am suggesting that you adopt a similar mindset when the exercise kicks off. Not only will worrying and interfering not help, but it will actively make things worse (believe me, I’ve tried it). Trying to interrupt and get participants to do the ‘right’ thing will spoil the exercise and teach them the wrong lessons. They need to be allowed the freedom to operate within your boundaries.

So instead of worrying, you need to trust the scenario, your team, and the participants and let things roll. 

You’ll still be plenty busy: evaluating how the participants respond, checking how their procedures hold up, and gathering feedback. And if you see somehting that you feel isn’t going ‘right’, let it run and bring up the observation in the debrief. Or, if something’s truly threatening the exercise, alert the controller so they can steer things back on track via a realistic inject.

Don’t get me wrong, this is hard, particularly when you’re running your first few exercises. The feeling of a lack of control can be scary and things can get messy if you haven’t built strong enough boundaries and created thoughtful course corrections. 

In that case, you can still step in and put things back on track if necessary. But that’s like hearing the director whispering someone’s lines to them in a play: it keeps things moving but breaks the spell. And an exercise isn’t a rehearsed play with a set script. There must be lots of freedom, improvisation, and several ways the participants can reach their objectives. 

When you create that kind of experience, then you’ll be running great crisis exercises. But first, you need to learn to relax (and channel your inner Garfield).

This article is the second in a series on crisis exercises. Read the first – How to Plan a Great Crisis Exercise – here.

And if you’re serious about getting crisis ready quickly, check our CrisisDojo: it’s a full-suite of crisis planning tools that gets you crisis ready in a fraction of the time normal programs take.

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