Tabletop exercise, which is often abbreviated as TTX or TTE, is a specific form of preparation for a crisis. It stands out from other approaches to risk management with Its most characteristic feature – a stress-free atmosphere. As such, the team talks through individual scopes of measures to take, the roles of specific team members as well as possible scenarios, all in the form of facilitated group discussion.

It all happens through speaking, sharing and finding solutions, rather than, as in the case of field exercises, doing or acting out. In such a form, the crucial thing is to learn and see if the theoretical provisions translate into actual emergencies. From this article, you will learn what value tabletop exercises can bring to an organization, when it is worth conducting them and how to run them correctly.

Basic rules for conducting a tabletop exercise

A tabletop exercise is a meeting aimed at designing procedures to follow and measures to take during an emergency. Depending on the type of organization, it may involve outlining ways of responding to a cyber-attack, a natural disaster like an earthquake or a sudden terrorist attack. It could also have a more casual scope, such as figuring out how to handle the loss of essential team members or the sudden appearance of a competitor in the market.

Regardless of the degree of emergency, tabletop exercises have one thing in common: a ready-made scenario with specific measures to take and their progression. Without the scenario, conducting a TXT makes no sense. This is because the main purpose of these exercises is to check whether the theoretical provisions operating in the organization are reflected in reality and whether changes need to be made. So if your organization does not have a defined plan of action in case of an emergency, the first step should be to write such a scenario.

The exercises take place in a relaxed environment to enable all team members to define their roles in responding to particular situations freely and discuss troubling issues with no fear or shame. Here, it’s not about competition and testing whether employees can act under pressure, but about learning and working as a team.

What value does conducting a tabletop exercise bring?

Conducting a tabletop exercise is not as time-consuming as a field exercise, but it still requires dedicating time and convening individual team members. You’ll need to commit some resources but what you’ll get in return are many benefits not only to the organization but also to the team members.

The value to the organization that TXT can bring
  • Verifying procedures during a casual meeting is far preferable to “live” testing during a crisis
  • Opportunity to refine rules, close gaps and implement corrective actions
  • Opportunity to improve emergency response techniques
  • Strengthen bonds between individual team members
  • Verify that employees know and follow the theoretical provisions of the protocols
The value to team members that TXT can bring
  • Opportunity to work through your role in a casual format
  • Better conditions for remembering the next steps of dealing with a specific situation
  • Opportunity to ask questions, expand your knowledge
  • Running scenarios and tests facilitates coming up with suggestions for changes or improvements to individual records

How to conduct a tabletop exercise?

  1. Identify the purpose of conducting a tabletop exercise
  2. Planning for a tabletop exercise should start with defining the goal you want to achieve after it is carried out and how you plan to apply the results achieved. For some, the key issue will involve educating those team members who missed the opportunity to analyze the various provisions in the plans before. Others will find in it a chance to assess whether the theoretical principles are reflected in reality. Whatever your main incentive for conducting such exercises, they are bound to bring about far more benefits than you’ll plan.

  3. Designate the people involved and define their role in the exercise
  4. Although the tabletop exercise is static and carried out in the form of a casual group conversation, there are still certain rules to follow. You have to designate the people who will participate in the exercise and assign them specific roles. Other people can watch and follow the scenario, but to avoid chaos they should not take an active part during the exercise itself. Observers can also voice their points of view, which can come in handy during the evaluation and documentation of the exercise, so it is worth setting a time to ask questions and make suggestions right after the TXT.

    A vital element of the whole endeavor is the appointment of the right leader/facilitator. You can decide on someone from your team or hire a professional for this task. Either way, it should be someone who not only knows the scenario and the company’s rules and the tasks of the individual team members very well but also has the specific interpersonal qualities to conduct the exercise properly.

    The facilitator should know and decide carefully when to follow and when to lead the group. The key asset one should also have is the ability to provide comfortable conditions for creative discussion and to chair the debate to keep it to the point. An established tabletop exercise leader will feel the group and maintain a sound balance between slackness and rigid rules.

  5. Identify a specific scenario
  6. The scenario should respond to the potential threat that is most real to the organization. Much depends on the type of business, but also the location of the headquarters. Such an action plan can address the occurrence of a hurricane or other element, but also specify the next steps for dealing with a massive hacking attack.

    Regardless of what your goal is, the scenario should define and describe in detail a fairly realistic situation. It has to include questions for individuals to put them in the right mindset and check that they are making the right decisions. This is because each team member must know who to contact in the event of a crisis, what actions are essential as well as which remaining resources to prioritize and protect. They need to get familiar with familiarize the general scenario before the scheduled meeting so that they can prepare for it well.

    The scenario has to include a specific script, yet, it’s worth betting on some flexibility here. Perhaps in the course of the discussion, further points will change and the approach of the team members will shed new light on the whole situation. In such a case, it’s best for the leader not to no interrupt the discussion, let it flow and slightly depart from the original script to forge a better, upgraded one.

  7. Remember the final analysis
  8. The exercises make team members understand their roles and test whether they know the various provisions to respond correctly in the event of an emergency. However, the real value of the tabletop exercise comes from the analysis of this discussion and lies in the opportunity to make improvements and enhance already existing solutions. That’s why it’s equally important to analyze the entire event after the exercise has already taken place and make a report based on it. This information can improve the contingency plan and verify the gaps in it.

Tabletop Exercise

Is tabletop always the right solution?

Naturally, every approach to risk management and emergency preparedness has its pros and cons. The results they deliver are shaped by several emerging variables, environments and circumstances and people. The same holds for the tabletop exercise. Undeniably, this exercise lets you test the existing guidelines and evaluate the environment and people. It also enables you to learn about the suggestions of other team members.

It’s also a great learning and questioning opportunity that doesn’t involve a lot of resources and isn’t too labor-intensive. What’s more, such exercises can also take place remotely, so they will work well for organizations having different locations around the world.

However, this does not mean that this method is an ideal solution, it also has its drawbacks. Firstly, a relaxed atmosphere and theoretical talk will never reflect the real event, during which even well-prepared employees can fail, as stress and the need to act in a hurry are added. During a tabletop exercise, you can check that everyone knows their role, but you won’t always detect all the flaws in the plan. Some of them will only show up during real-life situations, not during theoretical discussions.

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4 Steps to Design and Run an Effective Tabletop Exercise caroline becker avatar 1background

Author: Caroline Becker

As a Project Manager, Caroline is an expert in finding new methods to design the best workflows and optimize processes. Her organizational skills and ability to work under time pressure make her the best person to turn complicated projects into reality.