effective crisis training - kettlebells on a gym floor

5 principles for effective crisis training

June 10, 2021

Critical takeaways

  • “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” is particularly pertinent when it comes to crisis preparedness and training beforehand is essential.
  • However, not all training is of equal value, and ‘binging’ your training once or twice a year isn’t very effective and can even be detrimental.
  • Instead, we advise using the five principles we apply when building training: little and often, progressive, realistic (but not rigid), recurring and experiential. These ensure that you get the most out of your training and can be truly crisis-ready.

The saying “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” applies to a range of situations but is particularly apt when it comes to preparing for a crisis. Becoming crisis-ready not only sets you up for success if something happens, but you’ll be able to lessen the effects if disaster strikes. You might be able to avoid a crisis altogether.

However, an ad hoc training program won’t deliver the results you need and might even lessen your level of preparedness. Here, we’re sharing five principles that we keep in mind when we’re developing a training program so you can create your own effective crisis training program.

Little and often

A single block of training once a year places enormous demands on the organization. Everyone has to give up a chunk of their time, and the memories of the last session are vague. The upshot is that the benefits are minimized, and people are often left feeling confused as they haven’t had a chance to assimilate the lessons. It can also mean that when a crisis emerges, the lessons have been forgotten because the training was so long ago.

It’s not that there’s no benefit to annual or one-off training. We’ve all experienced the benefit of a two-day CPR course or training on a particular piece of software: when we need to, we have some basics to fall back on. 

But to be successful in a crisis, we need to recall more than just the basics.

Therefore, instead of an annual ‘training fest,’ we favor a little-and-often approach where training is conducted on a quarterly or even monthly cycle. That might mean an hour or two per month followed by a half-day per quarter dedicated to training, totaling about 40 hours annually, similar to a dedicated week. However, it’s a much more manageable schedule, and you then have the benefits of building a progressive program (more on that below) and keeping things fresh. It’s also easier to bring new arrivals up to speed as the next session is less than 30 days away, not months.


Progressive training – where each element builds on the last – is critical if we want to succeed. You aren’t expected to deliver a presentation in a foreign language on day one: it’s something you build up to. 

However, we frequently see teams trying to jump ahead with their crisis training before they’re ready. They want to tackle complex problem solving or a simulation before they have nailed the basics. But skipping the basics just leads to disappointment when things go awry and can erode people’s confidence in the system.

Instead, a progressive approach avoids these issues and ensures that you have the basics in place before you go on. Here’s an example of how you can build things up logically:

  • Terms and definitions – explain what we are talking about and what the terms mean.
  • Responsibilities – describe who’s responsible for what within a team and how the different teams work together.
  • Procedures and processes – review the guidance that explains what to do. That might be internal plans and procedures, but there may also be statutes and regulations that people need to understand.
  • Tools and techniques – explore what’s available to help get the job done. That will include the processes covered already, but there may be checklists, pieces of equipment, or software that teams can use.

This approach gives you a logical progression to follow and, best of all, these don’t need to take long. Each of these examples would be an excellent topic for a monthly training session. Then, and only then, should you tackle an exercise or simulation

Realistic and specific but not rigid

Once the basics are in place, you can move on to scenario-based training, but this must be realistic and focus on the situations you are likely to face. Your understanding of your risks will help you identify the kinds of things that you should prepare for but don’t be too rigid: by their very nature, crises don’t unfold neatly. You might discover part-way through that the situation you thought you were facing is a secondary element of the real problem: you need to be flexible, as does your training.

This also highlights the importance of building a solid foundation of the basics of crisis response because you can rely on these no matter what the situation. Any scenario-specific work will stand you in good stead if a similar situation arises, but you also have the basics to fall back on something unexpected occurs.

Recurring cycles

Training isn’t a one-and-done event. To be truly ready, you need to have an ongoing cycle of training. But this doesn’t mean that you keep trying to hone your skills to a finer and finer degree: like oversharpening a knife, you just wear out the blade that way. 

Instead, go back to the basics regularly. These fresh starts allow new arrivals to learn the basics as early as possible and are also great reminders for more experienced participants, particularly if there’s been an update to a process. 

We’ve found a six-month or annual cycle works well, and you can still mix up some of the quarterly sessions to keep things exciting and challenging for everyone.


Finally, the training needs to be hands-on and experiential. Remote work has meant that we’ve added ‘Zoom fatigue’ to the workplace hazard of ‘death by PowerPoint.’ When combined, these two factors result in a considerable drop-off in training value. 

Instead, we’re fans of asynchronous learning. Everyone watches the theory lecture or reads a procedure on their own schedule. Then, the group convenes for practical activities together. You can still leave time for discussion and Q&A to ensure everyone understood the point or process, but the practical, experiential activity is where the learning really takes place.

Preparedness equals awareness

One additional benefit of frequent training is that it reminds people that things can go wrong and the kinds of problems they might face. This makes them more risk-aware which, in turn, makes it more likely that they will spot and report warning signs when they see something out of the ordinary. Spotting and reporting these flags or triggers allows a prepared organization to react more proactively

So not only are you better prepared if something happens, but you also lessen the chance of being caught unaware.

Effective crisis training equals an effective crisis response

If you listen to accounts of people rushing in to help others, you’ll often hear a variation on the words ‘the training kicked in,’ even if that training had been years earlier. And if we can increase the frequency and effectiveness of training, we will be better prepared for that moment. 

So please think about these principles – little and often, progressive, realistic (but not rigid), recurring and experiential – when you’re developing your training program. You’ll be in better shape if things occur and might even be able to spot a crisis emerging at an early stage. 

Photo by Mathieu Chassara on Unsplash

Filed under: Blog


Bill is a reputation management, crisis communications and professional development expert, keynote speaker, Wall Street Journal Risk & Compliance panelist, and best-selling author of Critical Moments: The New Mindset of Reputation Management. He has more than 25 years of global experience managing high-stakes crises, issues management, and media relations challenges for both Fortune 500 companies and winning global political campaigns.