The first question we regularly get from clients who want their crisis management team to be trained is:

Q: “We want to do a large-scale exercise. It’s been over two years. Can you help us organize that?”

A: “Yes, we can. No, We won’t”

Q: “…?? Did you just say ‘No, we won’t’…?”

Correct. No, we won’t. Why? Most people think that you can train an emergency response organization by conducting large scale simulations. But this is only partially true.

As stated in previous blogs, crisis management is nothing like ordinary, day-to-day management. If the participants did not follow any recent, formal course in how to manage a crisis, then the underlying knowledge and skills to bring a simulation to a satisfying end may be missing.

Don’t get me wrong, most of our participants are intelligent, experienced and capable managers. But that’s also their pitfall. Because they’re very well capable of managing a business, they automatically apply their usual style of leadership and try to manage the situation from their backpack of day-to-day management leadership skills. If the simulations end with “all casualties accounted for” and “fire extinguished” they feel quite satisfied. 100% score achieved, now back to business.

Now that’s where it goes wrong. Participants assume that if the outcome of an exercise is positive on the effects-side of things, they must have performed well. Well … I’m sorry to disappoint you: the outcome is quite irrelevant. With the statement “End of exercise” from the facilitator, the “reset button” just made the results become obsolete and possibly irrelevant. What is more important is how we got there. Remember, no crisis is identical, so training for the outcome is not very useful. The outcome may be different each time and be influenced by a lot of (external) factors. Learning to manage a crisis is all about the process.

It’s very difficult to see what you don’t see. So, if the process of getting to the end results has been sub optimal, if no proper PEAR.RL[1] threat analysis has been made, some stakeholders communication has been missed, if long term effects have not been identified, or media response has been too slow, it’s now up to the facilitator to evaluate the exercise and to bring the bad news and tell the jubilant participants that they have not been quite as successful as they thought they had been. The participants walk away with the idea that they have failed and did not perform as well as they should have. They feel ill-prepared and, consequently, robbed of their confidence. They’ve been told what does not work, and possibly been explained how to do it next time. The feeling of disappointment remains. The next major exercise is scheduled somewhere next year, and crisis management becomes a thing that “we’d rather not do.”

Now, that’s not what we want. We want the participant to gain confidence, rather than losing it. We want the simulation to be an experience of success and reinforce successful behavior. We want the organization to feel that they have taken a major step in their crisis preparedness, and yet identify points for improvement. The feeling of being successful is a far better motivator than the feeling of failure or disappointment.

So… Let’s answer the question again:

Q: “We want to do a large-scale exercise. It’s been over two years. Can you help us organize that?”

A: “Yes, we can. But let’s prepare the team first”.

Depending on the level of “crisis preparedness maturity” of the organization, we will refresh the memory or polish the skill set of the participants, or, when the maturity level of the organization is not up to specs yet, teach some awareness and skills first. When those skills are fresh in the memory, participants will recognize situations, threats, opportunities and will know what to do. But they will also know how to do it. Now they are ready to participate in a full-blown crisis simulation. At the end of the simulation, they will feel successful. They have performed well and the facilitator can reinforce that successful behavior, yet stipulate some points for improvement.

This way, the learning curve is steeper and the remaining feeling in the organization is far more positive. The output of the simulation is far more efficient and more learning points will be achieved.

If walking is your day-to-day thing, you should learn how to swim before you attempt crossing a white-water river.

[1] PEAR.RL stands for People, Environment, Asset (or Operation), Reputation. And in a later stage Revenue, Legal & Liability

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