Hosting tabletop exercises is one of my favorite activities. I suppose that is a good thing, as I have hosted 200+ tabletops during my career. Tabletops have so many valuable aspects. They are a low stress way to test your current plans, identify gaps and improve your ability to respond. The more we test, the better we will be prepared at time of crisis.
There are many ways to perform tabletop exercises. If you look at 20 tabletops on the Internet you will see each has a different style. You can pick and choose the ones that fit your organizational culture and customize the content.
Below are some tips I would like to share with you. They have all been learned through experience. After the list of tips we will walk through a typical tabletop exercise. I will add suggestions where I think it might help:
Tip – You should always have goals and objectives defined for your tabletops. Know what you want to accomplish, communicate and learn from the attendees. Then work backwards to incorporate the content that will help you achieve your goals. I mentioned a couple of times in other posts on Ultimate Business Continuity that when I used to develop complex software systems I would always ask the users (clients) what they wanted to accomplish with the system. What type of output and reports would they need? What metrics would make them happy? What would be the most pleasing layout for input forms (user experience)? I would then design each module in the system to achieve all of the user’s desires (requirements). I found it a recipe for success every time. In the software / project management profession this is typically called a requirements document. On occasion, I called it a desires document!
Tip – Make the exercise interactive! The more the attendees get absorbed in the scenario, the better. When interactivity takes over I smile! It can be a magical experience!
Tip – Make it fun! I suggest you use slides with pictures and audio to liven up the exercise. Putting a few humorous slides and/or anecdotes in scope will do wonders building rapport with the attendees. The squirrel slide works every time!
Tip – Be careful not to use too many slides. Sometimes, less is more!
Tip – Make it low stress! Not – no stress so they fall asleep – but low stress, so they are not sweating bullets and wondering if they will be ‘called on’, like in school. This is especially true the first few exercises for a location or process. You are there to improve and partner with them, not to embarrass them. Before hosting tabletops as a business continuity professional, I was an attendee as an IT Senior Technical Officer. It is easy for me to empathize with attendees of exercises I now host.
Tip – Add value. Add value. Add value…You have a great deal of expertise and you must share it. Share and you will receive.
Tip – If you do it right you will often hit on a topic that turns into an amazing discussion. That is great! You also must keep control or one hot topic could use up the allotted time. If you need to, schedule separate more focused discussion solely on that topic.
Recently there was a slide I was debating whether I should include in my next tabletop. I was not sure if it would be on target for the group of attendees. I finally said, ‘what the heck’ and added it. Well, it hit a big-time security nerve and I was really happy I had included it. In fact, people did not want to leave that slide. Everyone was chiming in. Finally, I did have to take control and move on, with the promise that we would break that topic out into a follow-up discussion – and we did.
Tip – Please do not – I repeat – do not make it a lecture. If you make it a lecture and load up 100 slides with a bunch of densely packed textual information you will lose them fast. You may even hear some snoring in the room. Keep it interactive, fun and lively!
Tip – Nervousness – Trust me, the first few exercises you host you may be nervous. I certainly got nervous the first 4-5 times I hosted tabletops. It is fine to get nervous. Some of the most popular actors and actresses get nervous before a live performance. If you are a little nervous it means you care. Remember, most people are afraid to speak in front of a group of people. You are brave by getting up and speaking.
You are providing a critical service each time you host a tabletop. People will thank you. Even if they pick up one useful take-away it can be lifesaving or business saving. Just getting the key players in the same room to talk about emergency response and continuity of operations is a huge win for your organization. So, before you say the first word you have already won! Now have fun.
For the first few, remember to loosen your shoulders, emphasize certain words, use your hands to emphasize points and speak slowly (especially finishing sentences). Do a little check-down before starting. I always do my little check-down whether hosting a tabletop or racewalking a 5k. It always works to my advantage and it will for you.
After your first few tabletops you will be very confident and loose. You will no longer be nervous and you will look forward to hosting tabletops. It is really fun! The attendees will learn a lot and you will learn as well. You can add what you learn to future tabletops. It is a virtuous cycle – it gets better-and-better with every tabletop you host. I promise you!
Planning and Running Tabletop Tips:
Tip – Tabletops must be included in the comprehensive business continuity exercise schedule you create and share with management.
Tip – Plan for the month of the tabletop, not an exact date. If you suggest an exact date, give the Incident Commander some flexibility to adjust. They may have valid production reasons to modify the date. They will appreciate your partnership in finding the best date and time for the exercise. It is hard finding a date that accommodates the schedules of most of the attendees.
Tip – My tabletops generally run between 2.5 and 4 hours. I plan for 3 hours and always finish on schedule to respect the time of busy individuals. I always offer to stay longer to discuss all issues. Sometimes, when I begin the tabletop I joke, ‘we should be finished in 6 hours’ and everyone gets this really concerned look on their face and then I mention ‘I was only kidding’ … ‘approximately 3 hours’ and they laugh and appreciate the shorter time-frame. In sales that is called ‘framing’ (say a big number and psychologically the smaller number appears even smaller than it is)
Tip – The presentation should be customized to address threats that could realistically impact a location. For example, in the mid-west I discuss tornadoes, in the east hurricanes and in the west earthquakes… Prior to deciding on which tabletop scenario to present for a specific location you should do some situational research. Hopefully, you have a knowledge-base of location based incidents and geographical hazard maps (State Emergency Management Offices will have hazard maps and stats).
Is the location in tornado alley or on the San Andrea fault? … Speak with the Incident Commander to determine if a specific threat has a high probability of impacting his/her location. Then you can customize and present that scenario. If there is not a specific threat, I usually begin with a tabletop like the fire scenario that follows in this post. Fire can occur anywhere as a primary event or as a cascading event from an earthquake or tornado.
Tip – Coordinate with management on the location well in advance of the tabletop. Confirm the date and the requirements. Stress that all processes must be represented, as well as the Crisis Management Team, Emergency Response Team, and the Emergency Operations Team. It is also advantageous to have public officials such as police, fire and EMS make a brief appearance to share knowledge.
Tip – I have hosted tabletops ranging from 10 to 70 attendees. Through experience I have found if there are more than 40 attendees it is best to divide the tabletop into two sessions – morning and afternoon. The Incident Commander should be at one and the Alternate Incident Commander should be at the other session. It can be valuable training if the Alternate Incident Commander must step-in for the Incident Commander during a real crisis.
Tip – Either you or the Incident Commander should reserve the conference room and invite the attendees. I have found it is more effective if the Incident Commander sends the invites. The attendees know her/him. Another benefit is, if you are hosting many tabletops having the Incident Commander do the invites will save you a lot of time.
Tip – Horseshoe seating is my favorite where I am at the front. If that is not possible classroom or square is fine. I have done them all and you can too. Use the seating arrangement you are most comfortable with.
Tip – If the Incident Commander is new to the role you should do a brief meeting with her prior to the tabletop. In fact, even if she is experienced speak with her before the tabletop. This will instill knowledge in her, make her more confident and make the exercise more enjoyable.
Tip – The Incident Commander must stress in the email invite to attendees that people must attend. There will be occasions process owners or their alternates will be traveling. In those cases, a conference line can be provided a day or two prior to the exercise. You really do want as many people to attend in person as possible.
Tip – You should provide the email invite template to the Incident Commander.
Tip – The Incident Commander should order appropriate light refreshments.
Tip – Send the Incident Commander the presentation at least 10 days prior to the date of the tabletop. He can have copies printed for the attendees or they can distribute an electronic copy after the tabletop. It makes a nice take-away. Bye the way, I see nothing wrong with distributing the presentation in advance. The goal is for people to learn and be prepared. If they want to prepare in advance that is great!
Tip – The Incident Commander should assign someone to take notes and document follow-up tasks during the exercise.
Tip – Process owners should bring a copy of their plan to the exercise.
Day of the tabletop – finally!
Tip – Arrive early.
Tip – Visit the Incident Commander and say hello. Put him/her at ease. Confirm that he/she will do a short intro kickoff to begin the exercise.
Tip – Test the audio and video early.
Tip – Insure the refreshments are ready.
Tip – Have the sign-in sheet ready near the doorway when attendees arrive. Ask them to please sign-in.
Tip – Greet people as they arrive and introduce yourself.
Tip – Start the exercise on-time!
During the tabletop – our goal is to have fun and learn – let the attendees know that:
Tip – The Incident Commander should say a few words thanking everyone for taking the time to attend and letting them know the importance of this exercise. She can say a few words about emergency response and business continuity at the location. Perhaps reference a recent disruptive event that will strike a chord with the attendees. Then she should introduce you. If possible, be there in person. There have been times I have had to host by phone due to travel delays and cancellations. Remote hosting can work.
Tip – Smile and say hello. Thank the attendees for participating in this important exercise. Let them know how happy you are to be there. Put them at ease. Say something amusing – seriously – I mean say something seriously amusing. Attendees are often uptight, especially high level managers. They think they must score 100%. They might feel they will be embarrassed if they do not know everything. As you and I know, nothing can be further from the truth.
Tip – Let them know there is no pass/fail, if that is your methodology. Just by attending and actively participating we all win. The goal is to identify gaps in plans prior to a crisis event and close them.
Tip – Ask that they go around the table with all the participants introducing themselves. Have them include their process name and their role in the plan. People and roles change. New people join organizations and others leave. You might be surprised how siloed an organization can be. In my experience, people you think might know each other often do not.
Tip – Have fun. Every tabletop I have given I have enjoyed. I have learned really interesting things as participants relax and open up.
I learned about Google Voice and ICE (in case of emergency), both of which I speak about in other posts on Ultimate Business Continuity, from participants while hosting tabletops. These are just a couple of the many things I have learned during tabletops over the years. If you strive to make your tabletops interactive and fun everyone will clearly see that the tabletop is not so much a test them, rather it is a review of the plans as they are currently written. The attendees do not have to score 100% during the exercise. As I mentioned before, let them know that the goal of the exercise is to uncover gaps and close them prior to a real crisis.
Tip – If you are using a PowerPoint do not make it wordy. Use 6 bullets or less in a large font on each slide. Using a lot of pictures keeps it interesting. You do not want to put people to sleep or have them squinting to read an 8-point font from 30 feet away.
Tip – The person taking notes (scribe) should capture areas that need more research. The notes are really important so that nothing falls through the cracks. Remember to have the scribe assigned by the Incident Commander prior to the tabletop. The takeaways must be worked on after the tabletop. You can also list the takeaways on large easel pads. Review these at the end of the presentation and ask if we forgot to include anything.
Tip – At the end of the presentation thank the participants for their active participation. Ask them if they have any other questions or concerns. Let them know you are available to them 24x7x365 and mean it!
Tip – Provide them with a feedback survey, either printed or online. It is important they complete it the day of the exercise while things are fresh in their mind. Feedback helps you improve.
Tip – Be prepared for ‘thank you comments’ from attendees and emails letting you know how much they enjoyed and valued the tabletop.
Special Online Bonus!
Online tabletop example outline – Fire Scenario
As a special bonus, I have included an outline of one type of tabletop I have found works well for the attendees and I really have a lot of fun hosting. You can locate the tabletop at http://www.ultimatebusinesscontinuity.com/index.php/testing-tabletop/
I put the tabletop online for a few reasons:
- To improve it over time. I tweak it often. That keeps it up-to-date and fresh.
- In the not too distant future I intend to add augmented reality and perhaps virtual reality to the exercises I host. I have already started reviewing a few possibilities. That amazing level of realism will add significant value and attendees will love it! I will keep you informed of progress through the Ultimate Business Continuity Tips, Techniques and Tools Newsletter. Also, please contact me if you are interested in the VR exercise concept.
- The sample exercise will be more accessible to you when you are designing and hosting your own tabletops.
You will also find links to additional scenario based tabletops in the Hazards Central post in the Testing posts on Ultimate Business Continuity. My suggestion is for you to take the best of each tabletop and build your own customized version.
Some of the slides in the presentation can be re-usable for other scenarios – especially the crisis management and emergency response slides before the specific fire, earthquake scenario section. Use what works best for you. Update as you develop improvements. Customize for your organization.
Fire can occur in any locale, whereas a hurricane, winter storm or tornado is more regional in nature. This tabletop covers a lot of ground. The injects at different points in the tabletop keep it interesting and get people thinking. You should add additional injects.
Remember, prior to deciding on which tabletop scenario to present for a location do some situational research. Are they in tornado alley or on the San Andrea fault?… Stay away from a volcano for a New York location. Speak with the Incident Commander to determine if a particular threat has a high probability of impacting a location. If there is a need then customize and present that tabletop.
Remember, do not make your tabletops lectures. The best tabletops, in my experience, are the most interactive ones. Use multimedia when possible. I have used audio and video to liven up the scenario. It can get amazing as people are drawn in and really get into the scenario.