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Good crisis training, particularly a crisis simulation, should stretch you immensely and deliver great learning, but not leave you traumatised.

Conversely, it shouldn't be boring, feel normal or resemble "BAU".

It should be all-absorbing, as a real crisis is, but it must tread the line between overwhelm and boredom. 

I once watched a CEO cry in a crisis simulation I was part of. I've seen a CEO turn their back and walk away from my request for feedback on an urgent and important ASX release in relation to an international emergency. Then again I've seen a smart, articulate and brave CEO freeze unexpectedly in the face of a suspected investigative media inquiry.

These CEOs were in overwhelm. The aim of a good crisis simulation, over and above the learning outcomes, should be to avoid this kind of moment. 

In my long-term observation, "getting good" at managing a crisis isn't about how you're wired or where you work. It's about training that develops your skills or repeated exposure (practice) that affords good learning. It's true that we don't rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training when it comes to a crisis.

So what does a good crisis simulation look, feel and behave like?

In short, the real world. Simulations remain the best of all training if they're done well.

That's because they are immersive and realistic (replicating the real world) but controlled.

A simulation is, in some ways, a better teaching tool than the real world. They can be constructed deliberately to test and develop certain skills and experiences.

A live crisis tends to be more lopsided - it is based on real-world events but doesn't necessarily call on or develop all the skills a crisis team needs

A great simulation: five essentials

A really worthwhile simulation will cost you a lot in management time and money... but imagine if you'd done that in 2019? Money and time well spent. Even better if you rehearsed pandemic as a scenario!

Now, the five things your simulation must have to make the most of your investment (and not leave you with egg on your face with the Board, CEO (if that's not you) and your colleagues are:

1. Intellectual and emotional challenge

Your simulation should get tension levels up but not impossibly so, and be demanding intellectually. It has the balance right between "feeling" and "thinking" and then stress-test both.

Ideally you'll find yourselves right on the line between overwhelm and boredom. People should be both stressed and intellectually challenged but not pushed over the edge into emotional overwhelm. A bad simulation ‘floods’ people or leaves them under extended.

2. Realism

I've laughed out loud in a crisis simulation I attended as a participant because the scenarios seemed so ridiculous. Other simulations had the right reality-based or live actual issues to address and they flew. No matter what the core scenarios are, a simulation won't cut it unless it 'feels real'.

One great benefit of a simulation is that it allows you to practice solving existing problems, Done well you walk out with a different management approach to current problems. When simulation input or events feel very believable, or are actual events, risks, characters, testing your crisis response via a simulation gives you more than an assessment of your skills and a better response. You'll also improve your team dynamic, identify poor performers, solve problems differently and assess risk more accurately. 

The existing issues and risk register, crisis playbook and responses, and the BCP are all helpful here. Use those to run the crisis and you'll soon work out if they deserve to be kept, updated or tossed and re-written.

3. Cross-disciplinary, cross-functional and at the right level (CEO)

A simulation should cut across business areas, functions, hierarchy and normal process. While the risks might be real risks, the people on the crisis team should be carefully chosen. They will bring either functional or crisis expertise, decision-making firepower and/or stakeholder relationship knowhow. 

They're the same players you’d call on in a real crisis. If you're thinking twice about that you either have a poor performer who you need off the team, someone who's not trained properly or a good person in the wrong seat. Fix that or it will really be a problem in a real crisis. 

This way the crisis simulation replicates and amplifies the real world, but adds pace to ensure the team are stretched and experience the speed of a real crisis, or set to exceed it to really test people, but can be varied, with

4. Are pedantic and use "observe and learn" as a teaching method

Crisis simulations are experiential. That's why they're also fun. But because they're immersive and participants are (ideally) stressed, memories can be unreliable. 

So apart from an exercise leader and all the players required, you'll be needing at least one observer or more for a larger "multi-room" multiple team simulation. This person needs to capture data, observe participants, capture moments of learning and come to the debrief with advice for your business's crisis response as a result of all that. No mean feat.

Humans: so very unpredictable

Crisis, for many people, is immensely confronting, even overwhelming, and we find ourselves 'triggered', whether aware of it or not.

We might "flee, freeze or fight" in this stage but we're in what Daniel Goleman called the "amygdala hijack" and we can become disoriented, with complex decision-making impaired, our attention narrowed, possibly trapped in the one perspective that makes us feel the safest: our own (well described in Harvard Business Review).

Then there's a minority for whom crisis is addictive. These are high-stakes, fast-paced, adrenaline-surging moments at work or home that we find intellectually, emotionally and logistically challenging. Some of us rise at those moments, whether speeding up or, conversely, becoming very still in the eye of the storm, we become more masterful in the tough times. We're wired for it. 

Of course, this false dichotomy skates conveniently over the reality that you and I might be either type of person in different types of crisis, at different stages of our career, or indifferent workplaces or life moments.

A simulation should help you work that out, at least for now. The learning you get from doing one should be more durable - and stay for life. I still use what I learned 22 years ago from the first simulation I was in. I've been attending and running them ever since.

They're always demanding, they're always a lot of work and they always deliver great learning and better risk management.

The adverts...

For more on who to have on the crisis team see our guide here.

If you're actively trying to avoid a crisis, or think you might soon, watch the video here. It's a good investment of under 9 minutes to help you set up your crisis team well.

This blog was originally published in our fortnightly email, Take a beat Tuesday. To get these direct to your inbox before they're published, subscribe here

If you’d like to discuss adjusting your communications strategy for the current times, please call us or fill out our contact form here. 

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