In business, as in life, you never want to get caught thinking “If only” when things don’t go according to plan. “If only we had thought about this sooner” or “If only we had an emergency system in place.” That’s where business continuity planning comes in as a proactive approach.

If your organization invests in business continuity planning, you can minimize the risk of disruption to your operations in the event of natural disaster, technical failure, and more. 

But what good is a plan if it’s out-of-date or ineffective? To ensure your business continuity plan remains relevant and efficient, your organization needs to run business continuity exercises. 

What Is a Business Continuity Exercise?

Running business continuity exercises gives the executive leadership team of an organization and other designated incident responders the opportunity to play out realistic disaster scenarios that could disrupt their regular business. How would they react? Do they have a thorough understanding of the incident response plans and protocol in place, and can they effectively take action in a moment of crisis? Exercises put business continuity plans and an organization’s ability to apply those plans to the test.

During exercises, plan participants face various problems to solve as if disaster was striking in real-time. Depending on your company’s unique goals, multiple types of exercises could be effective. 

Ultimately, the goal is for organizational leaders and plan participants to become familiar with business continuity strategies. These exercises also allow companies to reflect on how their plans can improve to better address the organization’s current needs.  

Why Are Business Continuity Exercises Important?

Many folks in an organization play a part in business continuity, whether they realize it or not. From executives to human resource teams to IT specialists, business continuity plans often involve people at all levels of an organization. 

Business continuity exercises give everyone who plays a part in the plan an opportunity to come together and practice their responsibilities in case of an emergency. It allows people to review relevant continuity plans in detail and follow the procedures as they would in a real crisis. 

Time, effort, and funds are required to carry out these exercises. However, the value far outweighs the cost. Your organization has gone to great lengths to build an effective, well-designed business continuity plan. This plan has taken sizable resources to develop. But if no one within the organization understands or knows how to apply the plan in the moment of need, what difference will it make? All that money and time on program development go to waste.

Business continuity exercises can ensure operational resilience in the face of various disasters and disruptions to standard operations, including failures related to:

  • Facilities—a facility loss (e.g., a fire) can make a center of operations unviable
  • People—a reduced workforce (e.g., a pandemic) that disrupts product/service delivery
  • Technology—failed operating systems or technology (e.g., a cyber attack) prevents data delivery
  • Equipment—essential equipment that no longer functions, hindering product/service delivery
  • Suppliers—disruptions to the supply chain skew operations

A business continuity program can only be worthwhile if the key participants know their roles and are ready to take action. A leader can instill this thorough knowledge and readiness through exercises.

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How Often Should Companies Carry Out Business Continuity Exercises?

While there is no magic number, companies should conduct exercises routinely enough that reactions are second nature in an emergency. Participants should instinctively execute the duties of their role. Cultivating this instinct takes time and repetition, which typically amounts to, at minimum, annual practice.

Additionally, exercises should occur whenever there are substantial organizational or procedural changes that require the revision of business continuity plans.

Types of Business Continuity Exercises 

The type of business continuity exercises your company chooses to tackle will depend on several factors. Different industries and sizes of organizations have unique goals that may inform what format will suit them best. Additionally, some exercises are more complex and require a higher level of commitment to carry out. 

If your team is new to business continuity planning, start simply. As participants become more familiar with the structure of these exercises and get to know the details of their roles within the plan, you can progress to more advanced exercises.

Here are some common exercise types that can help your organization prepare. Set aside realistic blocks of time to complete an exercise. They typically will take between two and five hours.

Seminar Exercise 

This basic style of exercise is the “Plan Walkthrough” or “Desk Check.” All the participants split into groups based on their various roles and obligations within the plan. Folks get tasked with discussing and “walking through” all aspects of a business continuity plan. 

The most simple form of exercise involves key individuals discussing the ins and outs of a plan to see what will work and to discover any gaps. It is a straightforward opportunity to analyze the current plan in place and involves minimal investment and resources. It is a drill to carry out before plan maintenance and adjustment. 

Tabletop Exercise

This exercise style is suitable for when participants are ready to try their hand at an in-the-moment scenario, with a facilitator to guide the group through an emergency event. Each person gets a specific role, and they must respond accordingly to the given scenario using the business continuity plan as a guide.

During Table-Top Exercises, the facilitator adds new information, called “injects,” into the scene as it unfolds. Participants must respond to this new situation. 

This exercise is likely the most popular type and is excellent for beginner to intermediate groups.

Exercise

Standard Exercises rehearse a potential event to evaluate a company’s ability to respond to the incident. These are typically planned incidents, and participants are able to prepare. 

These exercises give individuals the chance to practice emergency responses for better preparedness in the future while creating an opportunity to identify and analyze areas for improvement.

Drill

Think of a fire drill. It is an exercise run for one particular purpose: to check and ensure the effectiveness of the response in the event of a fire emergency. 

Drills are a type of business continuity exercise involving supervised, highly-planned actions, typically centering on a single and specific operation, practice, or function. They are an opportunity to rehearse necessary steps and analyze efficiency. 

Simulation

In a Simulation, a group of participants acts as the decision-making body in response to events happening elsewhere. The participants could be in a control center or on an executive management team and must make decisions to remedy a situation that is unfolding far away.

This exercise style gives the participants an incredibly realistic chance to problem-solve and apply the necessary steps of the business continuity plan without having to act out the incident itself.

Live Play

During a Live Play Exercise, a scenario plays out as fully as possible. Organizers will need to consider safety precautions when planning the exercise but should try to make it as close to a real-life incident as possible. 

Live Play Exercises take an immense amount of time and resources to facilitate. Still, they are the best opportunity your organization has to practice for a genuine crisis and fully apply steps of your business continuity plan.

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Step-by-Step Guide to a Successful Business Continuity Exercise

You’ll need to take a few key steps to carry out a business continuity exercise successfully: 

Plan

Do not skimp on the planning stage. Your organization will need to decide on the necessary participants to include, what type of exercise to try, and agree on the goals of the exercise for it to run smoothly. You’ll also need to settle on the criteria of success and failure before beginning.

Facilitate

Facilitation can make or break an exercise. A skilled facilitator should be able to guide the scenario in a way that is supportive and believable, providing enough information and taking the activity seriously enough that it can be effective. 

Review

After an exercise, it is crucial to review to understand where participants succeeded and failed. This stage allows you to identify problem areas that need more work and sheds light on gaps in your plan that need revising.

Tips on How To Run Business Continuity Exercises

A successful business continuity exercise takes planning and forethought but can be more engaging and successful with these few tips:

Choose a Relevant Scenario

A scenario should be relevant to your specific organization’s risks for participants to apply a continuity plan effectively. If a scenario is too far-reaching, it will be hard to engage with and less helpful in examining where you need to make adjustments.

Make It Engaging

Once you have a realistic scenario, utilize tools at your disposal to bring the exercise to life for participants. Get creative here! You can use photos or videos, newspaper headlines, or snippets of news footage to capture participants’ attention. The more they feel invested in the exercise, the better the outcome will be. 

Debrief Immediately

Even if you’ve scheduled a formal review for a later time or date, it is essential that the participants take a few moments following an exercise to debrief and check in about their experiences. 

What did you learn? What went well, and what can improve? Are there any new threats that require adjustments in the plan? 

Taking stock of the main takeaways off the bat can help synthesize learning during a formal review later.

What Are the Outcomes of a Successful Business Continuity Exercise?

Business continuity exercises, when done successfully, should improve participant and organizational knowledge of plans and how to implement them. They show what is working in your plan and where changes are necessary.

Businesses evolve with time, and the priorities of your continuity plan should adapt accordingly. Exercises provide an excellent opportunity to evaluate present needs and implement new strategies. When done regularly, they should prepare your organization enough to limit the disruption to regular operations in an emergency.

How To Apply Lessons Learned from Your Business Continuity Exercise?

Just like unexercised continuity plans, not applying the lessons from exercises is a waste of resources and does little to no good. 

Create meaningful and realistic action items for improvement from your exercise findings, and design a system to track the development and implementation of new procedures.  

Conclusion

With careful planning, implementation, and review of business continuity exercises, you can rest assured your organization is ready for whatever the world has in store. If your company needs assistance in this essential pursuit, reach out to Castellan. We provide highly customized, solution-focused consulting and software services. Let us help your organization design and mature your business continuity strategy. Contact us today!

Template Business Continuity Exercises Template

The fully editable template is designed to guide you through the development and effective execution of a wide range of business continuity exercises.

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