How to Be a Mock Jock: Advice on Facilitating a Disaster Exercise

How to Be a Mock Jock: Advice on Facilitating a Disaster Exercise

The job of facilitating a mock disaster exercise is not for the faint of heart: it’s a critical, high-pressure task that takes a rare combination of skills. In today’s post, we’ll look at why the role is so important, talk about what it takes to be a good facilitator, and share some tips on how to succeed as a mock exercise facilitator.

Related on MHA Consulting: How to Plan a Mock Disaster Exercise

We’ve previously discussed the importance of mock disaster exercises in ensuring that your organization is prepared to respond effectively to emergencies.

In my post a couple of weeks ago, I talked about how to plan a mock disaster exercise.

In today’s post, I want to look beyond the planning to the exercise itself.  

This is the period—it could be 10 minutes or it could be five hours or more—when people at the organization are actually presented with the disaster scenario and are trying to think their way through it. In other words, showtime.

Specifically, I want to look at the role of the facilitator, which is a critical one in terms of whether the exercise flops or succeeds. 

Can a well-planned exercise fall apart if the facilitator is not highly skilled? Sure can. It happens all the time.

The thing about mock exercise facilitators is, they have to lead the exercise, but they aren’t really the leader. A facilitator who becomes the team leader, giving too much direction, is the wrong way to go about it. At the same, the facilitator can’t be a shrinking violet and just let the exercise go in any direction.

A good facilitator combines some of the qualities of a military officer, a stage director, and a party host, all in one.

Alternately, you can think of a good facilitator as being like the referee at a pro basketball game. When they do their job well, the players stay focused, the game seems to flow, and no one notices the ref is there.

A good facilitator frames the exercise and guides the participants, making sure they stay on track. At the same time, the facilitator must hang back and let the participants be the ones who do the work and wrestle with the problems.

The role of the facilitator is to present the exercise scenario to the group, update people as new injects occur, and keep things on schedule. The facilitator also provides breaks for participants during the course of the exercise. 

The facilitator helps guide the scenario along its logical progression from incident to response to recovery and the resumption of business.


So what makes a good mock disaster exercise facilitator? Here are 10 qualities and skills that most successful facilitators possess:

  1. Command presence.
  2. Charisma and enthusiasm.
  3. Deep knowledge of the scenario.
  4. Knowledge of the personalities and capabilities of the key participants.
  5. A willingness to follow the agenda—coupled with the ability to adjust on the fly when needed.
  6. The ability to engage people and get them communicating with each other.
  7. A sense of humor.
  8. The ability to tell when people need a break and the willingness to give it to them.
  9. The ability to tell the difference between a productive, relevant discussion and a time-wasting, irrelevant discussion.
  10. The willingness to let good discussions unfold and the ability to cut off or redirect bad ones.


Now you know some of the qualities good facilitators tend to have in common. Here’s another list. This one is of the two common mistakes to avoid when facilitating a mock disaster exercise:

  1. Being overly wedded to the scenario. Developments during the exercise might cut the legs out from under your scenario. If that happens, you have to go with the flow. Reach for your Plan B. What’s important at this stage is not making people act out a script. It’s adjusting as you go and trying to meet the broad objectives of the exercise. Even if you’ve been blown off course, you can still sail your ship to the right port. Sometimes you plan on making apple pie and life hands you lemons. When that happens, an inflexible person tries to make apple pie out of lemons. The wise person makes lemonade.
  2. Trying to be “the man.” Being the man in this case means being the one who has all the answers. However, when the facilitator is the man, the participants lose out, because they don’t get the chance to try to work the problems of the exercise on their own. This means the organization loses out, because the people it will depend on to get it through a real-life crisis are not getting the training they need. If the facilitator is the center of attention, then the exercise is not the center of attention. This is not what you want.


Finally, here’s a list of four common problems to be prepared for if you’re facilitating a mock disaster exercise, with suggestions on how to deal with each:

  1. Participants criticize the scenario. No matter how hard you and your subject matter experts work at coming up with a good scenario, there are always participants who say, “That’s totally unrealistic. It could never happen. It’s dumb. This is a waste of my time.” This kind of talk can be fatal to the success of the exercise. It must be nipped in the bud. Actually, it should be nipped before it buds. In framing the exercise in the very beginning, the facilitator should let everyone know that, no matter what they think of the scenario, the scenario itself is not up for discussion. It’s kind of like a real-life emergency would be: even if you think the situation stinks, you have to accept the reality of the situation and work to improve it. That’s what it means to be a mature professional doing your job. It’s the same with this mock disaster scenario. Love it or hate it, you have to deal with it and try to fix it.
  2. The participants get too theoretical. This is another thing we see a lot. People spiral off into the stratosphere. They start trying to solve the gaps identified during the exercise, for example. This is not the time for that kind of discussion. This is the time for grappling with the emergency presented in the scenario, in a concrete, specific way, as quickly and efficiently as possible. If these conversations spring up, the facilitator needs to cut them off and redirect everyone’s attention to working through the exercise.
  3. The participants are not engaged. People yawn, sit stone-faced, stare at their phones or computers, don’t say a word. It happens. It might be less likely to happen if you are well-prepared, dynamic, and frame the exercise as discussed above. It can also help to direct questions toward different individuals to try to draw them in. If someone’s totally ignoring you, working on their laptop the whole time, you could quietly mention to them during a break that you’ve noticed they’re busy and suggest they bow out and send their alternate. This can take guts, but sometimes it’s the right thing to do.
  4. Other business intrudes. Sometimes other business intrudes on the exercise. People get pulled away to deal with production or business issues. The thing to do here is, incorporate their unavailability into the exercise. It could happen in a real disaster, too. Tell the others to carry on as best they can without the missing person.


The job of facilitating a mock disaster exercise is a demanding but rewarding task. The facilitator plays a critical role in ensuring the organization’s staff could respond effectively in the event of a real disaster. A facilitator needs to be crisp and confident so they can manage the participants and keep things on track. They also have to be willing to hang back so the participants are given the chance to work through the problems of the scenario. Finally, the facilitator has to be deeply knowledgeable about the scenario but also prepared to depart from it and adapt on the fly as circumstances require.


For more information on facilitating a mock disaster exercise and other hot topics in business continuity and disaster/IT 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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