If you’ve been sweating more since COVID-19 arrived you’re not alone. Indoor cycling, yoga and cardio fitness workouts have soared since the lockdowns started, according to Garmin, the fitness-tracker manufacturer. Revenues at Peloton were up 172% in the second quarter of 2020 compared to a year before. It seems people in captivity (including me) find it hard to resist shelling out thousands of dollars for a bike that lets them interact virtually while going nowhere. To be honest, it sounds a lot like some Zoom calls I’ve been on lately.

Regular workouts do more than help us stay healthy and keep the excess pounds off. They have a major impact on how we respond to unexpected challenges. Exercise lowers our levels of circulating stress hormones so we can think more clearly under pressure. It increases serotonin production, which regulates our mood and sense of well-being. It lets us sleep better at night, and has even been shown to boost our immune systems.

Exercise also plays a major role in how companies handle unexpected challenges. Organizations that put their crisis plans and teams through scheduled crisis exercises react faster when trouble hits, have better coordination and over time become more resilient. Regular workouts also build muscle memory, enabling team members to respond instinctively to difficult situations  without having to refer to plans and flowcharts to plot their every move. If first-responders need to pore over the instruction manual, they’re falling behind at the very point when they need to be gaining control.

Crisis exercises take a variety of forms, but the goals are similar—to assess organizational readiness, validate plans and procedures and ensure that crisis team members understand their roles and are ready, willing and able to execute them flawlessly while the shit is hitting the fan and the world is watching.

Games Aren’t Just for Kids

Tabletop crisis “games” are low-stress, discussion-based exercises that can be held virtually or face-to-face. Guided by a facilitator, participants determine priorities, make decisions and discuss the communications and other actions they would take when facing a particular crisis. Stepping through response protocols before there’s a crisis is a good way to familiarize new team members with the plan, highlight changes since the last exercise, clarify roles and responsibilities and discuss any internal roadblocks or other issues that could delay response times.

Tabletop games are also a good opportunity to work through how the organization might respond to a timely business or societal issue or a crisis faced recently by a competitor or supplier. This kind of discussion can be especially helpful in bringing revealing new areas of vulnerability so they can be planned for and steps taken to proactively manage the risks. Most crisis games are completed in just a few hours, making them an efficient, cost-effective tool for keeping people and plans in top shape.

Virtual Reality Without the Goggles

A code blue emergency is no time to discover that the resuscitation protocol is missing a key step or that three members of the team think it’s their job to yell “clear!” Simulation exercises give everyone a chance to rehearse their roles and test their collaboration and decision-making skills in a secure setting, while at the same time giving them a taste of the chaos, conflicts and time pressures of an actual crisis. Highly realistic scripted scenarios unfold in real time and require participants to make sense of a flood of incoming information, formulate an immediate response plan, make decisions and call on resources, human and otherwise, throughout the organization. The goal is to uncover weak links in plans or personnel while they are still easily corrected and avoid unpleasant surprises in the middle of a crisis when speed and credibility are paramount.

Exercises that aren’t sufficiently challenging aren’t going to teach people much, while ones that stress them beyond their breaking points can lead to embarrassment. The most effective scenarios are those that immerse participants in an intriguing and scrupulously realistic storyline, engage them emotionally as well as intellectually and accurately reflect how information travels and decisions are made inside the organization. Simulated calls, emails, tweets and social media posts gain velocity as the exercise progresses, tossing participants into a virtual pressure cooker of outrage and media scrutiny that forces them to make fast decisions, communicate clearly and adjust strategies in real time as new information becomes available. Scripted “time shifts” compress emergencies that otherwise would unfold over days, weeks or months into an intense half- or full-day exercise. Unexpected plot twists and even bits of humor keep the pressure under control and the participants grounded in their temporary “reality.”

This IS a Drill

Live crisis exercises are the ultimate test of crisis performance. They involve all team members and groups named in the crisis plan and typically include interactions and coordination with local public safety agencies, civic leaders, regulatory bodies, essential vendors and business partners and other entities. Duration ranges from fast-moving, half-day exercises focused on a single crisis or catastrophic event, to multi-day drills in which multiple worst-case scenarios erupt simultaneously and stretch people and resources to their limits.

The goal is to evaluate human and organizational readiness in an atmosphere of extraordinary stress, in an environment designed to replicate real emergency conditions as closely as possible. Dynamic scripts change course with every decision, forcing participants to consider the potential consequences of their strategies and tactics and how they could come back to bite them days, weeks and months in the future. Executives need to maintain a panoramic view of the situation as they focus on allocating resources and managing relationships with key stakeholders. Perhaps hardest of all, they must resist the urge to manage every detail and trust that personnel assigned to fight immediate fires, gather intelligence, keep media and stakeholders informed and restore critical operations will deliver.

Cool Down and Stretch

Intense exercise breaks down muscle tissue so it can grow back stronger. This magic happens during the recovery. Crisis exercises work the same way. The real value comes after the exercise is over—evaluating how members of the crisis team performed individually and as a group and incorporating lessons learned into the plan. Exercises conclude with an analysis of participants’ top-line observations and any issues that arose over the course of the activity. These preliminary insights are further analyzed and form the basis of a more detailed post-exercise review, including actionable recommendations to address gaps in planning and training and improve team performance.

As organizations grow and evolve, the dangers they face and society’s expectations of corporate behavior evolve along with them. Companies that invest to develop crisis plans but not to develop the people they entrust with carrying them out are leaving their most precious asset—their reputation—to chance. A sound exercise regimen comprised of regularly scheduled tabletop games, simulations and comprehensive drills is the best way to keep people and plans in top form, immunize against reputational missteps and build long-term resilience to crisis rather than a false sense of security.

Next in our series on Building Crisis Immunity, we’ll focus on why good people sometimes make bad decisions and some other lessons from the annals of crisis psychology. So, pull up a couch and watch this space. And if you’re just joining us, be sure to check out the first three chapters, Why Crisis Immunization is the New Crisis Planning in a Post-Covid World, An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Truckload of Antacids and 5 Healthy Habits to Inoculate Your Organization Against Crisis.

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