Getting to the Point: The Value of Quick Start Simulations

December 13, 2019

Critical takeaways

  • We are firm believers in the value of simulations to help develop crisis readiness and have recently found lighter, ‘Quick Start’ simulations to be a valuable tool for transformation.
  • These are shorter-notice exercises resulting in a ‘come as you are’ assessment, not a ‘come as you would like to be’ performance.
  • Quick Start simulations immediately highlight the areas for attention to help organizations transform and become truly crisis resilient.

As we’ve noted before, the journey towards crisis resilience and transformation begins with improving crisis skillsets and readiness, alongside greater risk awareness. Both of those arcs are critically important in helping the organization achieve the ultimate state of reputation resilience. 

We’ve also preached the benefits of simulations for many years and we believe that these still have a significant role to play in this transformation. However, where there is real transformation to be made, we are noticing something counter-intuitive: that shorter, less elaborate simulations are generating significant results.

Here’s what I think is going on.

To us, simulations have always been key to developing skills and improving the level of crisis readiness in an organization.

Usually, these are detailed simulations based on a specific scenario for which there is a prepared plan. For example, a data breach or an active shooter scenario. The purpose of the simulation is to exercise or test the systems and procedures that the organization has in place to deal with a crisis but with a specific focus on that particular scenario. Alongside this test of processes and plans, we are also developing the skills of individuals and teams and improving the organization’s overall crisis readiness. 

These scenario-based simulations are an excellent way to measure and improve readiness around one particular situation, and of course, those skills are transferable to other crisis situations. 

However, these can be of limited use when it comes to exposing any broader challenges the organization faces in its overall crisis readiness. I believe that there are two reasons for this. 

First, we are limiting ourselves to one scenario and one plan so any view we have of overall readiness is skewed towards this particular event. Second, these larger simulations are usually announced in advance meaning that people can prepare for them. Participants may not know some of the specific details or curveballs that they will face, but they have a general sense of what the challenge is likely to be and will have spent time thinking about it. Preparation helps improve readiness, so I am not against that per se. However, this does mean that we are not able to gauge the actual level of preparedness in the organization for an unplanned event. 

Therefore, while I still think that pre-announced simulations are a powerful tool for testing plans and refining skills, we have been experimenting with something different recently. We are calling these ‘Quick Start’ simulations where, instead of a more elaborate, pre-planned exercise, we are running simulations designed to get a better feel for where things are right now. 

These are still simulations designed to test and train teams, but the Quick Start simulation is distinct from a ‘full’ simulation in three ways:

  • The exercise is based on a series of broader “what if?” questions instead of a specific crisis scenario. 
  • There is limited client-side prep work and planning prior to the simulation.
  • We focus on organization-level relationships and drills instead of tactical execution.

This format allows the Kith team to lead a general discussion on readiness and how the organization would develop a crisis response, instead of running through a situation-specific scenario. This generates a more high-level discussion of readiness and risk awareness that we would obtain if we only looked at one specific scenario. Moreover, even if an organization doesn’t have a fully-baked crisis communications plan or a detailed understanding of a specific risk, we can still run a Quick Start simulation. This lets us assess where the organization stands right now and gives us a more accurate understanding of its capabilities. We can see what communications between marketing and operations are genuinely like. We can observe the relationships between the various functional chains of command. And we can determine their overall understanding of the risks they face, not just their understanding of a single reputational risk. 

There are some downsides, however. This Quick Start technique results in a ‘come as you are’ assessment, not a ‘come as you would like to be’ performance. This approach is messier and can be more challenging than a scenario-specific simulation that has been announced in advance. 

In fact, we had one simulation where the relationships were so messy and confusing that we had to stop the exercise and use the balance of our time together for thoughtful reflection and challenge identification.  We discovered limited communication between Marketing and Communications teams, a lack of coordination between Communications and the Operations team, no real consensus on the risks they faced, and no mechanism to develop a solution to whatever problem they were confronted with. Leadership tried to jump in, in real-time, to solve these organizational challenges with limited success.  

These were all issues that had never been tackled previously, and some had never even come to light before. Luckily, the simulation illuminated those challenges in stark relief and forced the team to confront them. I suspect that in a more scenario-specific, well-planned exercise, some of these issues would have been minimized and overlooked, leaving the gaps unaddressed. 

Moreover, a Quick Start exercise is much easier to put together: there’s no need to build a complex scenario and prepare a team of exercise staff. Plus, there’s no need for the participants to rehearse a particular plan, review all of their risks, or conduct days of preparatory training. (Note that I’m not saying you don’t need to do these things: you do. But you don’t need to do all of these before running a simulation if you use the Quick Start approach.) 

Quick start simulations are a fast, efficient way for organizations to get crystal clarity on where they stand today. They also emerge with a clear, honest, actionable roadmap of things they need to remedy to become crisis resilient. 

So, if you’re looking to do a crisis simulation and you want to do something smart and fast, I encourage you to try to do a Quick Start simulation.  No matter where you stand, you’ll learn a lot. 

Filed under: Crisis Planning


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.