Is it possible to run a good crisis management exercise online?
At the start of the pandemic I was approached by a large international aid agency for whom I have run a number of bespoke crisis management exercises in the past. They wanted another exercise and asked, ‘can you do it online?’ My gut reaction in April 2020 was that it’s impossible to run a good crisis management simulation online. But is it, really? Having now run a number of online exercises over the past nine months I see my initial reaction was wrong. It is possible to run good exercises online, but first a number of guard rails need to be firmly in place.
Firstly, to give some context, it’s essential to regularly run exercises for your organisation’s crisis management team. According to the international standard on business continuity (ISO 22301), if your organisation isn’t already doing this, it should be. To paraphrase: if you don’t test your plans you can’t know whether they will work when you need them to.
Running exercises during lockdown remains important. So, what’s brought about my reversal in thinking about the effectiveness of online exercises? Here are a few of my (non-exhaustive) reflections.
In part it’s been down to trial and error, and seeing what works. Like everyone else during lockdown we’ve tried things that we wouldn’t otherwise have tried, and the results have been positive:
“That was a first-rate exercise. We really benefited from it. I’m very pleased that we’ve tested the (crisis management) system, and there are some clear learnings in there for us that will help us to improve.” CEO of a mid-sized international NGO headquartered in London, following a crisis management table-top exercise in early 2021
I’ve run exercises where everyone joins by zoom, and exercises where I joined remotely and the crisis management team were able to meet in person in a crisis operations room. Both have worked well, and both have had their learning points.
The positive feedback following exercises has given us confidence to keep forging ahead with bespoke online simulations. We’ve tried new techniques, including mixing traditional crisis management approaches with pre- and post-simulation podcasts and videos. This really helps to strengthen and add punch to the trainings, and hugely helps with learning retention.
There are some key practical insights that we’ve learnt over the past months:
- People are now much more used to the technologies of Zoom / MS Teams and other platforms. This means that where previously there might have been resistance to doing an online exercise, that has largely disappeared. Participants are comfortable with using teleconferencing sites, and the technology used to run exercises is much less of an issue than it would have been in early 2020.
- Getting the pre-engagement phase right is vital to the success of the simulation. Ensuring participants read the organisational crisis management documentation (whether this be a crisis management and/ or crisis comms plan) prior to the exercise is vital, and is often challenging at the best of times. Through a mix of trial and error we’ve discovered effective techniques to increase engagement with the pre-exercise materials. This means that participants often arrive at an online training with an excellent grasp of the organisation’s crisis management approach.
- We’ve found that allowing people to relax and get used to the digital ‘space’ is an important aspect of a well-run exercise. We therefore recommend doing 60 – 90 minutes of initial ‘teaching’ in crisis management good practice prior to beginning a simulation.
- It’s essential that the pre-briefing for the exercise itself is crystal clear and well-structured. Participants need to feel they are in good hands during the exercise. They want precise information on how the exercise runs, what’s expected of them, and who needs to have cameras and microphones on (participants), and who needs to have them off (observers).
- The structure of the exercise itself is important. Simplicity is important. Table-top scenario exercises (with strong elements of realism) work well but running a full-scale complex simulation may be more than this approach can bear.
- Have a Whatsapp group, or similar, set up to allow those running the exercise to communicate together behind the scenes. Actors and others helping to run the exercise need to be very thoroughly briefed on their roles, the scripts they will be using, and the timings of their interventions.
- If the crisis management team are able to meet in person in the crisis operations room, carefully check the audio set up prior to the exercise to make sure everyone can be heard. Language barriers can become challenging if the audio feed is ineffective.
It’s not just overcoming challenges – there are also significant upsides to running an exercise remotely:
- In an age when crisis management teams are increasingly a mix of remote and face-to-face it’s good to practice – can members joining remotely engage effectively, and what can be done to overcome the challenges of this? How is information shared with the wider crisis management team, including remote members? What technology will you use to do this: MS Teams / Zoom / Box / Dropbox / email / WhatsApp / other?
- More people can be involved in the exercise, either as participants or observers, and it makes it more cost effective if members of the board, country directors and others can join the training. On more than one occasion I’ve heard an observing Country Director say ‘I’m happy to know there are clear procedures at HQ to support us in the event of a crisis in the field’. Country Directors also – rightly – question issues which may not be at the forefront of the HQ Crisis Management Team’s response, like business continuity in a given country, and members of the board also contribute pertinent thoughts, adding a richness to the debate during and after the training.
So, in conclusion, my gut reaction in April 2020 was incorrect. It IS possible to run high quality crisis management exercises online. But it requires a different approach, and it’s important to thoroughly think-through the preparations for the exercise.
If you’d like to talk to us about running an online crisis management exercise, please get in touch. We’d be delighted to talk things through with you, whether you’re planning on running it yourself or whether you’d like our help.