Three Techniques to Make Crisis Simulation Exercises Challenging

7 min read · 03 July 2022


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Every crisis simulation exercise must create a challenging environment for the crisis team.

When you’re designing a crisis simulation exercise, you must engineer the exercise to ensure it provides sufficient challenges for the team. Too few challenges, and the exercise will feel routine and boring. Team members will disengage. Too many challenges, and you may force the team into dysfunction and compromise the learning opportunity.

You can make an exercise more challenging by adjusting structural aspects of the activity. For example, you might do the following to make the exercise more challenging for the team:

  • Increase the frequency of delivery of serials
  • Increase the number of different situations within the overall scenario (different cases the team will need to manage simultaneously).

While these techniques are effective, they’ll only get you so far when it comes to building a challenging exercise. I would argue they don’t go far enough when it comes to developing the team’s competence in managing complex crisis events. Also, these techniques don’t necessarily make the exercise more interesting and engaging. You’ll therefore need to dig a little deeper and apply different approaches.

Making exercises interesting and engaging is the key to a successful exercise. Exercise participants should leave the room feeling not only challenged, but also motivated to learn more about crisis management. Achieving these outcomes takes some work.

In the sections below, I’ll share three techniques I use when I design crisis simulation exercises to make them more challenging and interesting for crisis teams.

1. Introduce uncertainty

Crisis events are defined by uncertainty. When people design crisis simulation exercises, they tend to do so at a superficial level that involves passing information to the crisis team. Handing it to them on a platter, if you will.

Of course, things aren’t so easy during an actual crisis. Information may be hard to come by, and a lot of information–particularly in the opening hours of a crisis–may be inaccurate. It’s important that you prepare the crisis team for this reality by introducing uncertainty into the exercise.

There are several ways you can introduce uncertainty into an exercise. Here’s a few simple examples:

-Introduce something as a rumour. “My brother just called me and said that all roads leading into the downtown area have been blocked.” Or, “Mary from accounting said that the servers may need to be taken offline.” Are these sources of information accurate? Should the team take the information at face value and act on it? Or should the team take the time to validate the information? These are good questions the team should be asking. -Provide contradictory information. Introduce contradictory information by providing differing details relating to the same topic. Often information from social media (fast but often unverified) will differ from news media (slow but typically well sourced). This information asymmetry is exactly what the crisis team will face during an actual crisis, so it’s something they should be exposed to during exercises.

You can also introduce uncertainty into different aspects of the team process. For example, when the team is presenting a major decision to a senior leader, the leader could simply respond by saying “are you really sure that’s a good idea?” Such a statement would make the team doubt their plans. They’ll either need to double down and explain why their decision is sound, or they’ll need to acquiesce and go back to the drawing board. Whatever options you choose to apply to your own exercises, remember that the objective here is to ensure the crisis team is discerning when it comes to information collection and analysis. Any techniques you apply should work towards that objective.

When you introduce uncertainty, there are a few pitfalls to watch out for:

-Don’t do it too often. It will be enough to have two or three serials that introduce uncertainty. That number will be enough for the team to learn the importance of validating incoming information. Any more, and the team will think you’re deliberately messing with them and won’t believe anything that comes in. At that point, the team may become dysfunctional. -Be selective in how you insert incorrect information. The best approach I’ve found is to have managers call in sharing information they’ve heard through other sources. Contradictory information is best introduced via an official news agency and a less reputable source (e.g., a manager’s cousin or a rando on social media). -Be sure to make a note in the script that the information is deliberately incorrect. I’ve had role players correct details of the script because they thought there was an error, when actually I had deliberately inserted information to confuse the team. So, include a short notice to confirm that the information is deliberately incorrect and you want the information read as is.

All crisis events incorporate different aspects of uncertainty. You’ll need to engineer these aspects into your exercises to ensure the crisis team has the opportunity to learn how to operate in an ambiguous environment.

2. Introduce dilemmas

Dilemmas are designed to make decision making hard. They slow down the decision-making process. They may also make the crisis team doubt their capability to make effective decisions, testing their resolve in the process. As such, there are tangible benefits to be gained by ensuring teams face dilemmas during an exercise.

Here are three ways you can introduce dilemmas to a crisis team during a simulation exercise:

  1. Ensure the decision has two downsides and no upside, forcing the team to select the lesser of two bad outcomes.
  2. Introduce the potential for a significant upside alongside a significant downside. Knowing there is a significant downside if they are wrong may force the team to err on the side of caution.
  3. Introduce a penalty for inaction. Such a dilemma forces the team to act, and introduces a significant penalty for inaction. At the same time, there should also be risks associated with the action.

With each of these examples, there must be a time imperative. Without a time imperative, the team may be able to delay the decision (or avoid it altogether).

Aside from developing the team’s capability to make effective decisions under pressure, dilemmas are also a great way to stress test the organisation’s crisis management policies. For example, what’s the organisation’s role in supporting employee families during a natural disaster? Will the organisation be prepared to support an employee on personal leave in a country in crisis? Does the crisis team have the authority to shut down operations, or do they need to wake up the regional manager who is on holiday in the Seychelles with his family?

Dilemmas shouldn’t form key themes within an exercise, nor should they be an afterthought. Rather, they should be weaved into the exercise storyline to provide a compelling problem for the crisis team to solve.

3. Throw a curve ball

A good curve ball is essential for every crisis simulation exercise. The purpose of a curve ball is to unsettle the team. It should reinforce to the team that no crisis will be smooth sailing, and they should be prepared for situations to change and things to go to shit.

When you’re designing your curve ball, design it in such a way that it breaks a course of action. There should be one particular thing that the crisis team has decided on and implemented, possibly at significant cost. The curveball should make that thing non viable.

Curve balls are also a great way to shatter assumptions. If the crisis team has made a key assumption to enable them to move forward with a major action, throw in a curve ball.

Similarly, in situations where there is an obvious course of action to solve a particular problem, and the team is unlikely to properly think through that problem and come up with a more robust solution, then throw in a curve ball.

When is the best time to throw in a curve ball? In my experience, around two-thirds of the way through the exercise is an ideal time. Typically, by this stage the team has solved most of the more pressing problems. There may be a lull in the level of activity. The team will be feeling confident. Unstoppable even. Then in comes the curve ball.

(Lulls happen in real crisis events, and should be allowed to happen during an exercise. A gap in activity provides time for the team to regroup and think ahead. When you’re designing an exercise, provide space for lulls. But in one of those lulls, consider throwing in a curve ball.)

Curve balls shouldn’t just present an operational challenge. They should also have a negative impact on the team’s psyche. The curveball should knock the wind out of the team’s sails, forcing them to re-think their decisions and their approach to the crisis.

Curve balls must be prepared in advance as part of the exercise storyline. They can either be fixed (they’ll happen no matter what the team does) or they can be variable (they’ll only happen if the team takes a certain action, or fails to take an action). The key is that you can’t just make them up on the fly. They have a major impact on the course of events, so need to be carefully planned and thought through.

Only use one curve ball per exercise. If you try to use more than that, it will feel contrived. The team may feel as though you’re deliberately trying to mess with them. Don’t forget, the team will already have a lot of information to process and multiple situations to manage. The exercise will already be complex, so you’ll need to take particular care regarding how you introduce the curve ball.

Wrap Up

One of the keys to a successful crisis simulation exercise is to provide an engaging and interesting experience for the crisis team. To achieve this, the team must be challenged at times during the exercise. They must be surprised. There must be a few twists and turns, and some unexpected outcomes. Not only will these aspects make the overall activity more interesting and engaging, but they will also prepare the team for the demands of an actual crisis.

As I noted in the introduction, be careful to ensure the exercise is not too challenging. If you push the team beyond their capabilities for a sustained period of time, they won’t be able to follow their procedures. They’ll devolve into ‘whack-a-mole’ crisis management, ignoring sound practices and just reacting to what they see in front of them in any given moment. The ideal approach is to nudge the team close to their limits, then back off so as not to make the team dysfunctional.

Obviously, it takes a lot of experience to engineer a challenging exercise. You’ll need to be able to predict how the team will respond to different situations. You’ll also need to have a good appreciated of the team’s level of capability. But the benefits are worth the additional effort.

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