Overdoing It: People Who Overplan Their Mock Disaster Exercises

Mock disaster exercises

You might be surprised to hear there is such a thing as overplanning a mock disaster exercise. The motivations for this common problem are understandable, but the costs are high, as I’ll discuss in today’s post.

Related on BCMMETRICS: One-Two Punch: The Two Problems That Cause the Worst BCM Failures


An Unfortunate New Trend

In twenty-five years as a business continuity consultant, I’ve participated in a lot of mock disaster exercises.

I’ve helped organizations in all types of industries conduct them, in all parts of the country. These exercises have ranged from brief tabletop drills with a handful of participants to lengthy, highly realistic exercises involving up to a hundred people.

Lately, I’ve noticed something new about how many organizations are handling their mock disaster exercises.

There seems to be a growing trend toward people overplanning their exercises. This is unfortunate.

A certain amount of planning is necessary to devise a good exercise, as I’ll explain below. But I’m not talking about planning, I’m talking about overplanning.


What Does it Mean to Overplan an Exercise?

Overplanning a mock disaster exercise is when the organizers try to make the exercise fail-proof on the part of the participants. They try to anticipate every eventuality and eliminate every source of potential stress. They try to make the exercise as comfortable for the participants as possible while making it impossible for them to fail.

They also seek to minimize the number of action items that emerge from the exercise.

This tendency reminds me of helicopter parenting. The helicopter parent tries to organize their child’s life down to the last detail, protecting them from every bump and bruise.

Some planners of mock disaster exercises are the same way, only instead of protecting their children they’re trying to protect their participants.


The Roots of the Problem

It does not take a Sherlock Holmes to figure out the main motive for this behavior. It is fear. The planners who fall into the trap of overplanning are terrified of looking bad in front of senior management.

Sometimes they’re motivated by a desire to help the participants, but mostly they’re afraid of looking bad.

Many overplanners are in awe of the CEO. They want everything to go smoothly because they think this is the way to make the chief executive and other top managers happy with them.

This kind of behavior is understandable, to an extent. It’s natural to want to please the people you depend on for your livelihood and career advancement.

However, it is also short-sighted. This approach to mock disaster exercises carries significant risks for the organization—and also to the overplanner.


The Cost of Overplanning Mock Disaster Exercises

The main problem with planners who act like helicopter parents is, by babying the participants, they deny them the chance to learn and grow.

To be good at responding to disasters requires being able to handle discomfort, function in the face of adversity, and think outside the box. The only way to develop these skills is through practice. Exercises that are too easy for the staff deny them such practice. The result is a staff that is not up to the rigors of responding to disasters. The cost of this for the company, if and when a real disaster occurs, could be significant, even devastating.

Another problem is, when exercises are overcontrolled, staff get bored and tune out.

It’s paradoxical, but in being overly helpful to exercise participants, overplanners do them a disservice. Most people like to be challenged, provided the challenges are crafted in such a way as to be a manageable step beyond their current capabilities.

Planners who baby their participants deny them the chance to think for themselves and provide no room for them to take initiative.

The consequence is bad for the organization—and thus for the planner as well, since ultimately the planner is responsible for minimizing the impact of disasters. 

Conducting mock disaster exercises in the style of a helicopter parent offers the overplanner false protection at best.


The Right Way to Plan an Exercise

What constitutes proper planning for a mock disaster exercise? Designing a relevant scenario, consulting with the right subject matter experts, and deciding on the goals or objectives of the exercise. For more of these types of details see the posts linked to below.

In this post, what I’d like to focus on is the importance of bringing the right mentality to the exercise.

The right mentality is to look at the exercise as an opportunity for the team to grapple with problems. You have to be pushed out of your comfort zone, make mistakes, learn, develop your confidence, and get better.

The right mentality also involves letting the exercise flow naturally and being willing to accept an unhappy ending.


Developing the Critical Survival Skills

These days many planners of mock disaster exercises are approaching their task like helicopter parents. They seem to think they should make their exercises as easy for the participants as possible, in most cases because of their fear of looking bad in front of upper management. This approach does a grave disservice to the participants and the company. It ultimately serves the planner poorly as well.

The right mentality for mock disaster exercises is to design and run them so the participants have to grapple with challenges and use their initiative. This is the only way for them to develop the critical skills which, if and when a real disaster strikes, they will need to possess in order to respond effectively.


Further Reading

For more information on disaster recovery exercises and other hot topics in BCM and IT/disaster recovery, check out these recent posts from BCMMETRICS and MHA Consulting:

Michael Herrera is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of MHA. In his role, Michael provides global leadership to the entire set of industry practices and horizontal capabilities within MHA. Under his leadership, MHA has become a leading provider of Business Continuity and Disaster Recovery services to organizations on a global level. He is also the founder of BCMMETRICS, a leading cloud based tool designed to assess business continuity compliance and residual risk. Michael is a well-known and sought after speaker on Business Continuity issues at local and national contingency planner chapter meetings and conferences. Prior to founding MHA, he was a Regional VP for Bank of America, where he was responsible for Business Continuity across the southwest region.

Business continuity consulting for today’s leading companies.

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