19 Tips for Fantastic Desktop Exercises

We’re often asked for our top tips for running really good business continuity desktop exercises.

Continuity In Business believes desktop exercises are instrumental in getting staff and others involved in business continuity, especially if they’re – dare we say it – interesting and fun for those taking part.

We’ve put together our top tips for running a great exercise.  We currently have 19 and they’re listed below in no particular order.


1. Plan your timeline backwards

If you know when your exercise is going to happen, start with the date of the proposed rehearsal, and slot in everything you need to do, working in reverse chronological order.  It’s easier to schedule everything this way.


2. Remember your aims at all times

Define the aims of the exercise before you start.  Is it to test a particular plan, raise general awareness, encourage engagement, or even to get the boss involved?  Many exercises have a number of aims.  Define the most important at the outset, so you can keep checking that what you’re doing is going to meet them.


3. Don’t insist there’s a plan to test

Think you need a plan before you can hold an exercise?  We disagree.  Sometimes a good way to start the process is to hold an exercise, especially if you’re trying to get engagement from a wider audience.  This comes back to thinking about your aims – what are you trying to get done?


4. Choose the right creator

If you’re starting from scratch, this can be tricky. Ideally you’re looking for someone who’s very logical but also creative.  The logic ensures the aims are met and the plan is considered during the creation phase.   The best exercises are built with a creative bent, to help make them interesting (and dare we say, fun!) for the participants.  This is more important than them understanding your business, if they know the right questions to ask.

5. Choose the right facilitator 

We’ve all been subjected to boring learning sessions, and a learning session is essentially what a business continuity exercise is.  Remember your worst teacher at school?  Or that conference seminar that went on for so long that you had to play hangman with your colleague?  A business continuity exercise by that person may mean your staff write off business continuity as the most boring thing ever, and that won’t help you get the job done.

Pick a good facilitator: someone who is happy to speak to a crowd, facilitate discussions, and who can control a room of people of different seniorities who will have opinions to air.  It’s important to choose someone credible, cheerful, open to listening as well as speaking, and who can keep business continuity exercises to time.   It’s also useful to make sure that, if your facilitator doesn’t work for your company, there’s someone who does who can help them with any questions that come up during the exercise that they may not be able to answer.


6. Milk it!

If you have an exercise in the diary, it’s time to use that fact to your advantage!  Invite delegates several weeks before the exercise, and ask them to bring an up-to-date copy of their plan with them.  This maximizes the opportunity for them to review and update the plan before the exercise.  At the very least, they will glance through it to remember what it says.  (But consider having copies on standby for those who don’t bring theirs with them!)

During the exercise, spot the friendly and engaged people and encourage them as allies.  Remember people are far more likely to stay engaged with business continuity when they think it’s important, interesting, and they like the people leading it.   Make that happen.

After the exercise, thank those who came and those who helped, and make sure you follow up on anything you’ve offered to do during the exercise (such as find out a particular piece of information).  It’s never wrong to offer a genuine thank you, and people are more likely to help/participate again if you.  It’s always good to deliver on your own actions promptly.  And don’t forget to circulate the action list (see Tip 18!).

7. Make sure it doesn’t affect normal business

Have you heard the one about the exercise that affected normal business, so that customers believed something bad was really happening?  How about the one where a Director requested a lot of work to be done and forgot to mention that he was in an exercise and didn’t really need it to be done?  Or the one that was reported as fact in the organisation’s incident log the next day?  We’ve heard all of these!

Don’t let it happen.

  • Remind delegates at the start of the session that they need to pre-fix any interaction with anyone outside the room with the words, “I’m taking part in an exercise and what I’m going to tell you next isn’t real. I’d like to you tell me what would happen next if I asked you about the following.  Are you ready?”  If they get a positive answer they can go ahead, but they should make sure it’s understood what they’re saying isn’t real!
  • Pin up notices outside the exercise room saying “Business Continuity Exercise in Progress: anything you hear in this room between [times] probably isn’t real!”  Not only does it make sure everyone know its not real, but you just advertised business continuity to anyone passing by
  • Have a code word to end the exercise should anything REAL happen.  Make sure delegates know what it is at the outset.  Many companies follow the military example and use, “End Ex”


8. Visuals, if possible, wherever possible

If you have a choice between a page of text and a picture, which would you choose?  If you had a choice of a powerpoint presentation that was mostly pictures (with an engaging presenter), would you prefer that to slides full of text and the presenter reading it?  Most of us prefer pictures, and it’s true they speak a thousand words.

If you haven’t got a great stock of pictures and you can’t afford to buy stock from suppliers like istockphoto (it’s cheaper than you think, especially if you’re only using them internally) then try Microsoft Free Images and googling for free clip art.   And if you have a phone camera, start taking photographs of any sights you see that might be useful in future.

9. Don’t tell delegates the scenario before it starts 

We don’t know why this comes as a surprise to many, but we rarely tell delegates the scenario they’re going to practice before the exercise actually starts.  Knowing what’s coming up means they can prepare and that leaves you with less to learn from each other in the session.  The element of not knowing forces us to consider a multitude of scenarios when we look at our plans, and also helps us appreciate the urgency of being able to use our plans under time pressure.

There are exceptions to this rule, of course.  You may occasionally want to tell specific people so they are ready for particular things, or because you need to know how they will react to properly write your exercise.  However, where possible, not telling often adds to the learning.


10. Get interaction from the outset

Aim to get your delegates talking within the first 5 minutes of the session.  An exercise isn’t a presentation.  It’s about getting those in the room to decide how to use and improve their continuity plans.  Include something at the very start of the session to encourage everyone to talk.  Ideally it wouldn’t be anything pressurized.  If they don’t know each other then introductions are a good idea, but ask them to include their favorite TV show or movie.

Even better is to get them talking about something to do with business continuity.  A good exercise we’ve used a lot is to show photographs of major incidents that have affected the company or area and asked the delegates to call out their guesses as to what happened.  It doesn’t really matter what you do, so long as it’s something that makes everyone realise you’re interested in hearing from everyone in the room, without exception.

Make all your delegates feel valued – and help them realise that all answers are welcomed, even if some work better than others!


11. Keep the energy levels up

We’ve been known to use sugar for this!  No, seriously!  We’ve been known to take boxes of candy into meetings and throw sweets to anyone contributing verbally.  It’s a great tool to get people calling out answers and speaking up for themselves, especially if they’re new to the activity, or just a little shy in front of an audience.  And the sugar doesn’t hurt your session keep up it’s tempo.  But there are other ways that don’t involve bribery!  We’ve already talked about ensuring the session is interactive, but think about the pace of the session… Keep it pacey, don’t let anyone get bored, and build in bathroom/coffee breaks if the session is more than 90 minutes long.


12. Make it fun

Remember what we said about pictures being more interesting that text?  In the same way, a fun session is more likely to be successful than an awful one.  “Fun” doesn’t you don’t have to be serious.  This is a serious business after all.   But if you can set a scene where people feel safe, understand they won’t be judged by you, AND you verbally suggest you hope they have a little fun with the session, you’re more likely to find they will.

It’s helpful if the most senior person in the room – if that’s not you – encourages the participants to have a little fun with the exercise.  Having that person say they won’t judge anyone and they hope no one will judge them, will allow everyone to try things.   After all, the aim is to improve the plans, and sometimes we need the freedom to make mistakes to do that.  It’s far better to do things that don’t work in an exercise than during a real incident.

There’s also a serious side to this, especially for incident management teams.  In our experience, teams that can have fun together are more likely to handle really difficult, prolonged incidents as a cohesive, mutually supportive group.


13. Encourage friendly competition where you can

For desktops, instead of one group, split your delegates into teams.  Get them to look at each part of the exercise within their own group and then feed back to the rest of the room.  If they’re not sure about this, ask them to imagine everyone else is unavailable to make decisions (e.g. stuck in a storm, have flu, on holiday, etc. ) – if you say it with a firm smile, they’ll usually enjoy this element.  This can achieve several things:

  • Different groups will take different approaches so everyone learns more
  • You have more control of the room when groups speak – one group is you verses them and its harder to control the conversation: allowing each group 3 minutes (for example) means you have perfect control of the discussion as everyone understands you need to move on from them
  • An element of friendly competition never hurts: friendly rivalry can produce some brilliant work
  • Quieter staff will be nudged to contribute more in smaller groups, and they often contribute ideas that haven’t been heard before because, well, they’re usually quieter!

The ideal group size is 5-10, but you can do it with more or less.  Ideally you don’t want more than 3 or 4 groups feeding back at each stage of your rehearsal (else it gets repetitive and long-winded) so, if you have more than this number, simply choose different groups to respond each time.  Ask those that don’t speak to make notes to hand in at the end if their point isn’t covered during the session.


14. Keep it realistic

It’s sensible to ask your delegates to suspend their disbelief if you’re running a scenario-based exercise.  It’s useful to ask them to remember you’re testing the plan, not the scenario.  You can also suggest that they make reasonable assumptions regarding any issues or holes they spot.  But none of this takes away from the fact that you should aim to make any scenario as realistic as possible.

Asking your staff to pretend the country has been hit by bubonic plague simply isn’t as likely to be as successful as pretending there’s a flu pandemic.  Similarly, pretending all your data has gone missing when it’s backed up in three places is not going to be as useful as pretending a virus corrupted the data and the backups.  It’s just about applying a little common sense.

That said, and going back to having a little fun, we once asked a team to come up with the worst-case scenario for them.  After a few minutes, they told us that it might be if a small but key supplier’s staff lottery syndicate won and the key staff there left, and thus were lost to our team. So we ran a mini rehearsal where exactly that happened! The trick was to be clear that we were having a little fun with the scenario but there were a range of reasons why practicing losing that supplier might be helpful (e.g. if they went bust or were taken over, if key contacts left, if our company were no longer able to work with them, and so on).


15. Embarrass no one (in public)

We’ve never seen a case where embarrassing a participant was useful.  As a facilitator consider yourself a host and treat your delegates with the same respect you’d treat a guest in a hotel for which you worked.  They aren’t always right but their opinion is going to be the one that resonates in the room when they speak and you need to respect it.

Remember delegates may be more nervous than they seem.  If they don’t know the exercise content before they arrive at the session, they might be feeling a little vulnerable about their plan and their capabilities.  Remember you want to make friends (see Tip 6) even with the difficult people.

We do have some extra tips for managing behaviour that doesn’t help you during the session.  For example:

  • There’s nothing wrong with gently correcting information that you are 100% certain is wrong.  We’ve used, “Oh I think that works differently now, I believe the way it’s done is xxx”.  Take a tip from media interviewers and minimise the possibility for them to come back to you by simply moving on to the next point without pausing.  Of course, smile and be polite!
  • If someone senior says something obviously wrong, “I’m not sure I completely understood that, would you mind explaining again” may help see what they’ve said is wrong, and will give others in the room the chance to notice you’ve picked it up too.
  • Two stock phrases we find useful are: “Wow, I’ve been doing this for ages and I’ve never heard that before,” and “Would you mind awfully if I thought about [or double checked] that and came back to you after the session?”  They can be graceful ways to indicate you’re not on board with their opinion but you’re respecting it whilst reserving the right to come back to the point.

Don’t feel you have to solve everything in the session, and don’t back yourself into a corner unless you’re 101% you are right and you’re able to find a way say so without embarrassing anyone.

If someone is really being disruptive, and you think it’s best to chat to them, wait until others are engaged so you can quietly come alongside them.  You can try asking if you’ve done anything to offend them (which is may be more likely to result in them insisting you haven’t and becoming co-operative than if you ask directly whether there’s a problem!).

If they are very disruptive you could offer them the option of leaving, “I see you’re really busy and that may not be helpful to the others, would you like to step outside and deal with it properly?”  We’ve only used this very occasionally, but it’s your session and you’re in charge, so it’s a perfectly reasonable request.  You may even find they come back a few minutes later with no further distractions.

Remember to stay polite and smile; other people may be having a difficult day and you’re not going to achieve your aims any better by contributing to that.


16. Get or nominate a scribe to take notes

You can’t do a great job as a facilitator if you’re also trying to take notes.  We’ve tried it and it’s never worked!

Line up someone to take lots notes for the session.  If that’s not possible, then simply ask for a volunteer at the start.  Unless you have good reason to take proper minutes, you can ask the scribe to concentrate on noting ‘action points’.  A good action point explains what needs to be done, so that anyone reading it after the session will understand what needs to happen with that point.

If you know you’re going to have a particularly busy period of actions being noted, warn your scribe when it’s going to happen (see Tip 19!). You might also remind the participants that X is taking notes so you might ask them to slow down so the scribe may catch up!


17.   Assigned actions out with 24 hours

There is a definite correlation between the length of time it takes to distribute an action list and the number of actions that get completed.  Action lists sent out within 24 hours with clear instructions, each of which is assigned to a named person with a due date for completion, have the highest success rate.  And because the action list was sent out efficiently it encourages everyone to take the action list seriously.  We reckon that for every 24 hours later than this that your list goes out, around 15-20% fewer actions will be completed.   If that sounds like a bold assertion, give it a try and see for yourself!

Model the behaviour you expect from others.  If your work is late, vague or unclear, you might well expect the returns to be the same.  The reverse is also true…


18.    Learn from everyone: even the horror stories

As facilitators we’ve never been to an exercise where we’ve not learned at least one new thing.  It’s important to take new information and ideas on board.  You never know when they might come in useful.  Also, in the spirit of modeling behaviour (see Tip 17) remember that if you expect participants to listen, exercise and learn, you need to do the same!

Horror stories are also a great resource too.  For example we love the (true) story of the business continuity planner who hid a box in an office and then held a ‘surprise’ exercise where he told everyone there was a suspect package in the building and they needed to find it… without telling them it was an exercise “to test how they’d really manage it.”  Of course, not only did people refuse to stay in the building to search for the package but one of them actually called the police when they realised they hadn’t already been contacted.  (The scariest thing is that you’ve probably heard of this company!)

When the day comes that we think we’ve learned all we need to know, we’ll turn our website off and hand the mantle over to someone else!


19.    One thing you’ve learned

Our favorite tool and secret weapon… We always end an interactive session by going round the room and asking each delegate to call out one thing they’ve learned.  (If your group is huge you may have to resort to one per table.)   The rule is that no one can repeat a point that someone else has made.  By telling people at the beginning of the session that you are going to do this at the end, they can make notes of things they might say during the exercise.

This is a brilliant tool that we created by accident one day when we finished an exercise a few minutes early.  It achieves several things:

  • It reminds everyone they did learn something – and so did everyone else
  • The last memory of the session will be that the session was very worthwhile
  • Many of the ‘learnings’ will actually be action points that need to be captured with the speakers name assigned to it!  For example, “I need to update my contact lists,” “I need to work out how to contact our key supplier when their free phone number is down,” “I need to redraft the section on X” and so on.

Warn your scribe this is going to be a busy part of the session for them!


So there they are, our Top 19 Tips!  If you’ve got more, why not add them below?  They might even end up on the list in the next edition!  

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If you found these useful, subscribe for updates, check out our other resource articles and our downloadable business continuity exercises.


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One comment on “19 Tips for Fantastic Desktop Exercises

  1. Alan Pawsey on said:

    This tip has worked for me:
    Make the exercise ‘multi-lateral’ – involve other agencies like Police, Health or the Utilities and weave them into your scenario. Invite representatives to sit on group tables (if that is your format), then give them 5 to 10 minutes (no more) to speak. This should obviously be relevant to the exercise but it does open things up a little with a fresh face and, perhaps, new information.

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