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Conducting a Tabletop Exercise as a Test of Readiness

Conducting a Tabletop Exercise as a Test of Readiness
A great way to test your crisis management procedures is to run what is called a tabletop exercise. Tabletop exercises will allow you to exercise and assess your plan as well as the performance of your crisis management team. During a tabletop exercise, a facilitator, who could be an experienced professional crisis expert or an organization’s crisis manager, leads a step-by-step walk-through of a hypothetical crisis scenario and an organization’s likely response. At every step during the exercise, members of the crisis management team are expected to use all available tools and support resources, such as checklists and procedural manuals to determine and then share the appropriate action steps.
Along the way, the facilitator will ask probing questions of the group and encourage participants to challenge each other. The goal of the tabletop exercise is to review best practices, roles, and responsibilities, areas for potential improvement, and new ideas that could be incorporated into response plans. To create and execute a successful tabletop exercise and contribute to the organizations higher state of crisis readiness, the exercise has to convincingly simulate a crisis scenario. It has to give participants a taste of the chaos that would be an inevitable part of any crisis.
As with many of my recommendations during this course, if your organization is committed to vastly improving or seriously testing its existing crisis response plans, you may want to engage an external expert who can deliver an exceptionally high-quality exercise. If you choose to go this route, the expert will help you craft a realistic scenario complete with a collection of progressive updates that will allow you to test all aspects of your plan, from the leaders to their processes and tools, to their decision-making and so on. You can run these exercises in as little as a couple of hours or over a much longer period of time, such as days or even weeks.
At JetBlue Airways, as the leader of our emergency command center, I would partner with our office of safety and emergency response to plan and execute tests of our crisis readiness. Sometimes these exercises would be as simple as a short tabletop exercise for a single element of our crisis management team. Other times, such as with our biennial major crisis response exercise, we would partner with one of the airports in our route system. We frequently partner with our good friends at the Fort Lauderdale–Hollywood International Airport in South Florida, and run a full-scale multi-day emergency exercise. These were incredible productions that included partnering with the airport to tow a JetBlue airplane into an unoccupied area, the field.
Partnering with local college theater programs to create simulated injured passengers that were positioned in or near the airplane that just experienced the simulated crash. Partnering with local emergency response and hospital facilities to treat, deliver, and accept our injured customers. Partnering with Fort Lauderdale, local and New York-based media facilities to simulate the media frenzy that would appear during a crisis. Include the production of simulated news reports, on-site tweets, press releases, and everything else required to create the most authentic crisis scenario possible. These were truly amazing productions. Why share all that with you? Because in some safety critical industries, crisis preparedness is not just a luxury, it’s an absolute requirement.
The best way to ensure a company’s readiness is to test the processes, procedures, and people that will be deployed to manage a crisis should they ever be needed. Now, the example that I just shared with you was an exercise that we would manage ourselves. We did so because we had a world-class crisis response expert on our staff. Your organization may, but probably doesn’t have people with this level of expertise and that’s okay. Just know that experts do exist and they can be very helpful in testing your crisis response capabilities. But this doesn’t mean you can’t conduct a tabletop exercise of your own. In the next activity, you will learn how to do just that.
You may find the execution of these tabletop exercises some of the very best training that’s ever been done at your organization. What will make them particularly valuable is that your crisis management team will be using actual crisis response procedures and checklists as their training materials. As you know, this means that not only will the exercises be wonderfully useful for skill development, but they’ll provide opportunities to validate procedures, onboard new members of your crisis management team, earn the confidence of your board and senior executives, and contribute to your culture of resilience and crisis readiness. In my book, these are all great wins for the long-term future success of your enterprise.
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High Stakes Leadership: Leading in Times of Crisis

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