How to Plan a Mock Disaster Exercise

How to Plan a Mock Disaster Exercise

Given the importance of CM training, I wanted to give you some idea of how a company can plan a quality mock disaster exercise based on our experience at MHA Consulting over the past two decades plus.

The secret to performing well in a crisis is practicing ahead of time, but exactly how does a company get such practice? The answer is by performing mock disaster exercises, and in today’s post, we’ll look at how to go about planning such an exercise.

Related on MHA Consulting: Kill the Zombies: How to Get More From Your DR Exercises

The secret to doing well in a crisis is to train ahead of time. To rely on your team’s seat-of-the-pants brilliance in the heat of a disaster is like playing Russian roulette with your company’s future.

Over that time, we have been involved in disaster exercises and crisis management situations for hundreds of companies in a range of industries all across the country.

The 12 Steps of Planning a Mock Disaster Exercise

Here are the 12 steps you should take in planning a mock disaster exercise for your organization:

1. Consider the scenarios the team has done in the past. 

Think about whether you should reuse a past exercise or devise a new one. You might want to reuse an old exercise if significant gaps were exposed the first time and you want to replay the scenario to assess improvement.

2. Review action items from any previous exercises, if applicable.

Make sure any outstanding issues have been resolved and will not cause problems for the upcoming exercise. When you plan a mock disaster exercise, you want to be sure all your effort is accounted for.

3. Consider the maturity of the team.

Less mature teams should be given fairly basic exercises. Mature teams can handle more complex challenges.

4. Identify the exercise’s key objectives.

Identify what you are trying to stress test and validate. Focus on a core set of objectives that you would like the exercise to meet (e.g., reviewing your CM documentation or making sure people are getting well-trained to perform in their roles). This is an area where less is more.

5. Identify subject matter experts who can aid you in building the exercise.

Planning a mock disaster exercise is much easier when you have the proper help. These SMEs can be from inside or outside the organization or a combination of both. Leverage their expertise to help you build the scenario. Look for people who will help you build a viable scenario rather than simply pick your ideas apart. Typically, these people would sit the exercise out since they helped build it. Avoid consulting people who you want to participate in the exercise.

6. Brainstorm with your SMEs.

Hold a couple of meetings with your subject matter experts where you develop and refine your scenario. Validate that the exercise framework meets your objectives. Identify and plug gaps in the scenario. Clarify areas that might confuse people. You don’t want participants pointing out holes in the scenario.

7. Keep it real.

The scenario should be a plausible, real-life type of situation. No zombie apocalypses or Marvel superhero attacks. You want people to focus on how to respond, not on the wildness of the scenario.

8. Build a timeline and list of events.

In cooperation with your subject matter experts, work out the details of the exercise, including how much time you will devote to it. Consider the maturity of the team in determining how long you will give them to respond to the events in the exercise.

9. Build in a Plan B.

When you plan a mock disaster exercise, have a few different paths ready in terms of how the scenario might go. Sometimes the team makes choices in the early going that can make the whole rest of your plan inoperable. Don’t force the team to go down a certain decision tree just for the sake of your exercise. Be prepared to adapt to the team’s choices. Think of it as one of those pick-your-own-adventure books. Make sure you can keep feeding the team fresh, relevant problems no matter what choices they make.

10. Revise the scenario as needed.

Subject the scenario to a process of draft and revision. It probably won’t emerge in perfect form after the first meeting. Work on it over a period of time, adjusting it as people identity gaps and areas where it can be improved.

11. Choose a facilitator.

This is a critical decision. The choice of a facilitator can make or break an exercise. A good facilitator is deeply knowledgeable about the scenario and the organization. They are a strong, engaging leader who also has the knack of hanging back and letting the team grapple with problems, rather than overdirecting everything. I’ll talk more about how to facilitate a mock disaster exercise in my next post.

12. Consider bringing in outside help.

Still not sure how to proceed? Are you envisioning a large, complex exercise with many phases and participants? Want to make sure your scenario is sufficiently thought-out? If so, you might consider bringing in a business continuity consultant to help. Good advice in the planning stage can be the difference between a successful mock-disaster exercise and one that fizzles out inconclusively.

As mentioned previously, I’ll talk more about facilitating the exercise—that is, actually running it—in an upcoming post. (I might also do a post on micro-exercises and the importance of making crisis training part of the company’s culture.)

Improving Your Company’s Resiliency

The key to performing well in a crisis is to train on how to deal with them ahead of time. In business continuity, we do this by conducting mock disaster exercises. By following the steps given above, you can devise an exercise that will realistically challenge your team, improving their ability to respond to a crisis and boosting your company’s resiliency.

Further Reading

For more information on how to plan a mock disaster exercise and other hot topics in business continuity and IT/disaster recovery, check out these recent posts from MHA Consulting and BCMMETRICS:

Richard Long is one of MHA’s practice team leaders for Technology and Disaster Recovery related engagements. He has been responsible for the successful execution of MHA business continuity and disaster recovery engagements in industries such as Energy & Utilities, Government Services, Healthcare, Insurance, Risk Management, Travel & Entertainment, Consumer Products, and Education. Prior to joining MHA, Richard held Senior IT Director positions at PetSmart (NASDAQ: PETM) and Avnet, Inc. (NYSE: AVT) and has been a senior leader across all disciplines of IT. He has successfully led international and domestic disaster recovery, technology assessment, crisis management and risk mitigation engagements.

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