Faculty Advisor: Tabletop Exercises: Choosing the Right Scenario

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Q. As part of my company’s crisis management team, I am assisting in the development of a tabletop exercise to help us prepare for potential events. We have identified several possible incident scenarios, but there will always be other possibilities we haven’t tested. How do we create an exercise that is adaptable to other situations?

First, we applaud you for helping to lead your organization to greater preparedness. You’re already off to a great start. Second, your question isn’t uncommon; many crisis management teams struggle to ensure they’re choosing the right scenarios for their tabletops.

The possibilities are myriad once you start thinking about them. Your exercise could help your company prepare to deal with such challenges as:

  • kidnapping/ransom demands
  • hostage situations
  • workplace violence and related employee issues
  • acts of terrorism
  • sabotage
  • compromise of highly sensitive propriety information
  • coordination with the public sector incident command systems during critical incidents
  • weather related natural disasters
  • explosions or major fires
  • supply chain disruptions and other major business interruptions

A tabletop exercise should be designed in line with your company’s culture, business processes and organizational structure.  It needs to be specific to a particular company location so participants will be able to relate to a location they have some knowledge with.  By all means do not make it overwhelming or catastrophic by attempting to address too many issues which might occur in an incident thereby overwhelming participants and making it impossible to resolve within a 3 to 4 hour time frame.  Make sure that all participants have some issue they need to address, e.g., finance’s role in making sure that funds are expended and recorded appropriately; public affairs preparing public statements or keeping employees and families informed.    

There can never be a “wrong” scenario since any well thought out exercise will train the crisis management team in the fundamental skills and procedures needed to manage any event.  The experiences gained in an exercise will transfer to other scenarios or actual incident.

The well-designed tabletop exercise should clarify the responsibilities of each team member, identify roles during crisis, define channels of communication, and assess the organization’s capabilities. The tabletop gives the crisis management team the opportunity to build teamwork, improve coordination, facilitate group problem solving, and validate the emergency response plan. It helps them gain experience and understand the dynamics and processes of crisis management, whatever event they face.

Don’t be overly concerned with picking a particular scenario as long as it is applicable to your business processes, realistic, not too simple, yet not beyond the reach of your team. Think of your first exercise as a building block to other exercises addressing more difficult situations For example, start with a small weather related scenario and then to a major fire explosion or workplace violence event. It’s not an easy choice. But don’t forget, it’s beneficial to run more than one exercise, so there will be multiple chances to test your plan against different possibilities. And hopefully it helps to know that a tabletop that sets the foundation for response by exercising the fundamental skills of crisis management will set the organization on the road to successful response, regardless of the situation.

Answer by Rad Jones and Jerry Miller, SEC Emeritus Faculty.

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