You smell smoke. Then come flames! You run into the front yard and turn to look at your home with fear and dread. Now imagine your local, rookie fireman appears on the scene to fight your fire having only ever trained online with no real field-simulation experience!
Firemen train by fighting real fires in a controlled environment to learn how to use the equipment and how to make repairs on the fly when gear malfunctions, such as when a hydrant fails to turn-on as expected. Only experience with a real fire teaches the teamwork needed to work fast and handle unexpected problems.
Many organizations have written a crisis management plan and secured approvals all the way up to the C-Suite, but have never tested the plan in real circumstances to know how it works. Plans that have not been “pressure-tested” in a realistic, simulated situation risk that the team will not work well together and face higher odds of financial and reputational damage, or worse, when the inevitable crisis hits.
A well-written crisis plan contains a list of events that an organization thinks could occur, with checklists, easy to find procedures, and decision trees for leaders to follow from the instant a critical issue arises or event occurs. The only way to safely know an organization with a well-written, easy to locate plan is ready, is to simulate a real event.
According to insurance broker Marsh, every dollar spent on a crisis simulation or preparedness exercise can save $7 of expense when the crisis hits. Other surveys suggest that, for publicly-traded companies, those that are perceived to have handled a crisis well see an appreciation in stock price over the next 12-18 months; companies that are viewed as poorly managing a crisis see a stock price decline.
A table-top discussion in a management or staff meeting is a good way to introduce leaders to what they will need to do if certain hot-button events occur. Such a discussion gets leaders to think about, read, and focus on the prospect of a crisis and the management plan to deal with it. But it can also turn into just a “check-the-box” exercise and not get them to internalize the plan. Only real experience tests the plan and facilitates its internalization by interacting with it and thinking through its complexities in the face of reality.
A useful simulation causes a visceral experience that hits participants in their gut, as well as in their mind. The best approach is to develop a likely scenario that plays out in a series of unfolding chapters with content such as “breaking news” and social media posts and videos. The team role-plays as they interact with the content, work through responses, make mistakes, and then improve their planning and response when faced with the eventual crisis.
At the very least, involve the core team identified in the crisis plan. Then, based on the fact pattern or issue to be tested, invite others from inside or outside of the organization.
Someone from the Information Technology department should surely be on the core team no matter what the issue. If it is a physical property issue, make sure the head of facilities participates. If the issue involves people in any way, the Human Resources leader should participate. The best get participants from across functional departments, functions, levels, and business units to foster cross-organizational teamwork and collaboration.
Assign observers (who may be outside professionals in crisis simulation) to record what goes well and what can be improved as the simulation unfolds.
Fire departments have a practice facility and donated homes to burn for practice. For most organizations, unless it’s the evacuation drill, the practice field is usually a conference room.
Appoint a drill leader and have her/him develop crisis scenarios. The fact pattern should be a combination of likely events and then a bit of a stretch of a fact or two that forces the team to engage. Add other factors within a short period of time; a typical crisis can emerge over several days or even weeks. A good drill collapses time and forces the team to respond in a compressed time frame.
After the drill, process what went on, what the team did well, and what processes and procedures need improvement. If nothing goes wrong for a while, monitor what happens with other companies going through a crisis.
ABOUT ANDY GILMAN
The content in this post was principally written by Andy Gilman who founded and runs CommCore and who is an award-winning journalist and lawyer. He counsels leaders for challenges that include 60 Minutes, Congressional Hearings, FDA Advisory Committees, town halls, teleprompter speeches, new business pitches, crisis response and product launches.
Among his many highlights, Andy has been counsel to Johnson & Johnson in Tylenol 1, Government of Canada during SARS Outbreak; global training assignments for General Motors, PepsiCo, and several pharmaceutical companies.
CommCore is a strategic communications consulting firm that specializes in Media Training, Crisis Preparation, Response, and Simulations. CommCore’s PressureTest Simulation has been profiled in the NY Times.