A Guide To Successful Tabletop Exercises
As anyone who has ever been involved in event management can tell you, even the best laid plans can go terribly wrong with the simple introduction of the “human factor”. Apply this to emergency response planning, where the stakes are a whole lot higher than a corporate cocktail party, and it’s easy to see how plans that seem watertight on paper can go to pieces as soon as a crisis actually happens.
One of the best ways to take the human factor into account is to test your plans by conducting tabletops on a regular basis. Tabletops are group exercises that test the response of your crisis team to a particular scenario and tend to very quickly expose previously undetected gaps in your plan or issues that need to be addressed. They also work as a reminder of small but important details, such as alternate assembly points and exactly whose responsibility it is to talk to the media if, say, the VP of Communications is on vacation.
Here, then, are some important tips for getting the most out of your tabletop exercise:
Setting up the tabletop: make it relevant to your organization
If you don’t have someone experienced in creating and facilitating tabletops within your organization and would rather not involve a consultant, there are tabletop exercise templates that you can adapt that have built-in facilitator guides. Some will need more customization than others – FEMA offers a couple of free tabletop templates on their site, but they are quite generalized, and Preparis also offers a free workplace violence tabletop download here – or you can find a paid option for download or as part of a wider business preparedness offering. However you choose to go about it, make sure it is as relevant and as tightly customized to your organization as possible, with locations, names and terminology that’s familiar to your group, and a plausible scenario. Schedule the exercise well in advance to try to get everyone that would be involved in responding to a crisis in a particular office location to participate.
During the exercise: have clear objectives, the right tools and stick to a schedule
Ensure you have copies of your emergency response and business continuity plans available and a whiteboard or flipchart to document notes and action items that arise from the session. Before starting, the facilitator should review the objectives and scope of the exercise, and remind everyone that the crisis leader will have the final say if there are conflicting opinions. If not managed properly, the exercise can quickly get off schedule; the facilitator should set time limits on decision-making and be strict about enforcing them. At the end, conduct a “hot wash” to see what did work and what needed improvement, and hand out surveys to participants. Remember, the usual rules of a successful meeting also apply to tabletops: start on time, finish early and provide food!
After the exercise: act on what was learned
Make sure action items are circulated after the exercise is complete and review and update your plans accordingly.