Big versus small - a small egg next to a large one

Small is beautiful: the value of a small simulation

June 17, 2021

Small is beautiful

Critical takeaways

  • A large, incisive simulation is an excellent training vehicle to practice your crisis readiness and put your team through its paces in a realistic environment. 
  • But a sort, simple simulation – even discussing a specific topic with your team – will still add value and may be more appropriate in some cases.
  • Apply the four Ts we use for planning simulations to determine what’s appropriate for your team and to ensure you get the most value out of whatever training you conduct.

Many of you know I spend a good amount of time teaching sailing, as well as offshore sailing. One of the things I use is checklists; I know pilots use checklists quite often and, personally, I love checklists. 

For sailing, there are big checklists that we use for big offshore passages, multi-day trips, or probably anything over four hours. They relate to safety systems, food, checking the engines, and identifying any bigger gaps that we have. We also have super-short checklists. If we’re just going out for a quick day trip, I don’t do a full comprehensive check of all of the things on my checklist, but I do have a shorter list I check. 

Big vs Small

However, the difference between a full check and a quick tune-up fits with your crisis readiness planning — particularly relating to simulations. You don’t have to always do big crisis simulations or big planning exercises that take a long time; those are critically important but aren’t the only tool you have available. You can do smaller, episodic exercises, even as part of your staff meetings, in order to make sure that you’re ready and that you’re prepared when the time comes. 

So what’s the difference between big checklists and short checklists, big readiness, and quick readiness as we think about crisis simulations and preparing your organization to go on a journey of crisis readiness? 

Before we tackle that, we should remind ourselves of the value of simulations and training. 

Speed = Success

Remember, an organization’s success in a crisis is directly related to speed — and speed comes from understanding your mission and your values, plus your chain of command. That’s what makes you fast. Simulations allow you to understand the gaps that you have in your organization; you could have a gap in social media, you could have a gap in media training, you could have a gap simply in the flow of information or decision making that you have within your organization. You could have a gap in access to information — where’s the information? Is it available to you? 

How to Identify the Gaps

So we do these crisis simulations is to identify the gaps. You can do large-scale crisis simulations, and that’s what we spend a lot of time on to identify the big gaps. However, these can be expensive and require a lot of time. 

But you can also just do quick checks.

Doing quick checks between these big, larger events that we have, is a good way to check in and perform a simple, quick check of your overall system. This is a way to understand where you are in general but it also helps you think about the smaller issues you might need to tackle. 

And that’s important because most of the crises you’re going to deal with are not these large, system-grinding-to-a-halt type of challenges — you’re going to have day-in and day-out operational business challenges that just require quick checks and quick simulations in order for you to be ready. 

The Four Ts

Even though there’s a big difference in the scale and scope of a full simulation versus a quick discussion with your team, you can use these same four Ts to plan your simulation and determine which type will be more effective.

  • The first is Topic. What’s the area that we’re actually going to investigate? It could be a data breach; it could be sexual harassment; it could be executive compensation; it could be any number of issues that you want to deal with. 
  • The second one is Type. Are we going to do a rapid-fire, live-fire exercise? Are we actually going to have input from the media, input from stakeholders? Are we going to do a more logical and thoughtful tabletop exercise that’s not really constrained specifically by time, but where we can move ourselves around the bases in a very clear and logical way?
  • The next is the Team. How big of a team do you need to have? You want to have a multidisciplinary team — lots of different departments; maybe your legal organization, communications organization, someone from HR operations, someone from government relations. How big is the team that you want to have? 
  • Lastly, how much Time are you going to commit to this? We think that four hours or so is a good timeframe for a more thorough exercise but, if you’re doing a tabletop exercise, you can do a lot in two hours. Sometimes, you can do a lot in a very short period of time.

How short is short?

If it’s a really quick check you’re after, it can be as simple and as fast as grabbing the newspaper. Grab The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, the Financial Times, pick a headline and say, “What if this had happened to us? How would we respond in this situation?” 

You can do this in a staff meeting, you can do that with your leadership team, you can do it in an annual planning meeting. It doesn’t require a comprehensive checklist, or a comprehensive simulation — it’s very similar to a quick check that we would do on a boat, the shorter checklist of where we would look for things in order to be able to understand where some quick gaps are, and things that we want to fill in, and how do we exercise ourselves. 

Observing the Rule of T’s 

So use these four Ts to determine the scope and structure of your simulation.

What’s the topic that you want to address? What are the gaps, specifically, on a topic? Who’s on the team? And how much time are you going to take? 

Then you’ll be able to run training that’s most appropriate for you, your situation and the time and resources available. 

We’ve got a number of clients that do this quick check: “Here’s what happened to an industry colleague: How would we have responded?” They grab The New York Times, and they say, “How would we do this?” 

Meanwhile, we also have clients that have planned and scheduled two to four crisis simulations per year. They’re going to spend the time and invite the whole team in order to have this really deep level of understanding around the gaps that they find in their organization. The benefits are that at the end of the exercise, either the big check or the small check, you identify concrete gaps — and you have a really clear understanding of areas that you need to improve. You know concretely areas where you’re strong, areas where you’re weak, and areas where you’ve got some additional questions. Both tools — the longer, more comprehensive crisis simulation, or the “just grab the newspaper and do a quick check,” — really give you insight into your organization. Some insights might be a little bit deeper than others, but all are important. 

Small is beautiful

So when you’re next thinking about a simulation, don’t be put off by the idea that this is a multi-hour, intensive event. These have their time and place – and are excellent training vehicles – but you’ll achieve a lot at a staff meeting if you grab The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, and ask, “Hey, what if this had happened to us?” 

Photo by Daniele Levis Pelusi 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.