At Conducttr we develop technology and methodology for clients to write and run their own realistic crisis exercises. But what does “realistic” mean and why is it important?
Importance of Realism
When a crisis occurs, everyone wants confidence in the crisis management team (CMT) that they’re able to step up and deal with the situation. But how many readers are confident that the training they’ve received or given has truly prepared the CMT for what it will face?
“Realistic training” means training that’s good enough to develop the right knowledge, skills, attitudes and behaviours for peak individual and team performance during a crisis. A crisis is not like a normal day in the in the office: tensions are running high, the political stakes are high, stress is high and everyone’s physical wellbeing is potentially going to be pushed to the limit though lack of sleep, lack of food and dehydration.
Re-creating the stress of a crisis during training is paramount because we all behave differently when stressed: our ability to maintain good situational awareness is dramatically impaired and the way we communicate and collaborate with others can deteriorate in a significant way. Hence a realistic rehearsal must test the team – how it communicates and how it collaborates – which is itself dependent on the individuals in the team.
The diagram below is adapted from Huddlestone & Pike’s excellent book Team and Collecting Training Needs Analysis (2016). We see that team performance can be assessed with reference to two primary processes: team communication and team coordination.
A key part of team communication is achieving a shared situational awareness. Most readers are likely to be familiar with the OODA loop (observe orient decide act) but it’s worth taking a moment to consider the orient part because this is where teams benefit from diversity. Information from unfolding events (observe) are interpreted (orient) in different ways by different people based on their experience, culture, point of view and so on. To orient the team means sharing interpretations and this takes time – time that is in short supply during a crisis – and listening to others.
Assessing the CMT during this process we should look for cohesion and adaptability. Do they have a shared purpose? Are they able to re-evaluate and change direction when new information arrives?
Realistic exercises test the team’s ability to come together and they highlight weaknesses.
When considering team organisation, parallelism refers to how much overlap there is between roles and asymmetry refers to how different the role responsibilities are. Where there is little overlap between roles and where responsibilities are unique to each team member, there needs to be a high degree of trust.
Realistic exercises should test the team trust. They can do this by creating political, social and financial forces that threaten team unity – pulling the individual in the opposite direction from the team goal. Multi-agency exercises where there are teams of teams offer additional opportunities to surface friction and hence develop experience of ways to deal with the friction. Old rivalries and hostilities are better to surface during a rehearsal than during a crisis.
Rehearsing is not only proving that people and processes work, it’s proving that they don’t fail.
Creating the exercise
So far in the discussion of how to create a realistic crisis exercise we’ve focused on the cognitive, emotional, social and political dimensions but what about sensory immersion? How much should the training environment look, sound, feel, taste and smell like the real thing?
A good simulation environment creates a personal experience that directly transfers to on-the-job familiarity and expertise. This is why “live” simulations using real people on real systems is the most sought after and yet, because of the disruption involved, is exercised infrequently. In fact, because of the infrequency and the complication of executing such live exercises, the rehearsal can become a staged walk-through rather than a realistic exercise in the sense of emotional high stakes. Yes we may learn that the temporary operations room has no mobile signal or the voice conference system doesn’t allow people to rejoin if they drop off the call, but couldn’t this have been discovered without the disruption and has the team really developed expertise?
At Conducttr we believe that mixed-reality training where clients blend physical environments with digital augmentation strike the right balance – creating sensory and emotional realism. Virtual reality, where the training environment is purely digital, is great if your job is to step into a burning building or some other hazardous environment, but if you work in a CMT and your job is to communicate with and coordinate people then wearing a headset for a day and living in a synthetic environment is unlikely to be the answer. Our solution allows clients to train in a real physical environment with a blend of automated and live stakeholders with real and simulated systems – hence creating the most realistic experience of a crisis with the benefit of detailed assessment data for real-time and after-exercise review.
The diagram shown below is the checklist we give to clients to help them use our TeamXp crisis simulation software to create more realistic exercises that better prepare CMTs for the real thing. The next time you’re preparing for a rehearsal, use the chart to check that you’re adding the right amount of stress into the exercise to ensure you’re developing team and individual confidence and experience.
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