Preparing for the Worst:
Using Active Learning to Train Your Executive Team
by Roger Mason PhD
In every organization, an executive manager deals with a wide variety of problems. An executive’s training and experience helps them to evaluate, prioritize, and develop solutions. One of the most overlooked aspects of executive leadership is preparing for emergencies and disasters. Managers will be required to evaluate, prioritize, and solve critical problems they may never have experienced or rarely occur.
Some managers maintain they are trained to make important decisions no matter the topic or the context. The problem is their experiences and daily decision making can be routine, with foreseeable consequences. Critical incidents, such as disasters or emergencies, are very different. The contingencies may be unfamiliar, the time for problem-solving compressed, and the circumstances may be uncertain.
One of the best ways to prepare managers is with training based on active learning methods. This article will explain active learning, demonstrate how to analyze threats, explains how to develop scenarios, and offers techniques for employing active learning methods.
Analyzing the Threat
Analyzing the nature of a threat is the best way to begin preparing for it. Threats can be divided into one of three categories:
Natural threats are a disaster or emergency caused by the forces of nature. Some of these disasters have some predictive lead time that allows decision-makers time to prepare. The exception is earthquakes. Examples include:
Human-caused disasters may include events such as criminal acts, terrorism, and accidents. Examples include:
- Active shooters
- Hazardous materials spills
- Transportation accidents
- Terrorist attacks
- Cyber attacks
Systems failures impact a variety of people, structures and processes. This type of emergency can be a primary or secondary threat. It can involve other threat areas.
The problem can be confounded when the system failure is initiated by natural disasters or human events.
- Pandemic (natural and human-related)
- Labor Dispute
- Power Outage (Could be natural or human-caused. It may be accidental or purposeful)
- Political Unrest
What is Active Learning?
Active learning is an instructional method where the student engages in the learning process. The engagement may involve discussions, corporate learning, problem-solving or decision making. Some advantages of active learning include:
Participating in the learning process using real-world problems
Students take what they have learned and apply it to simulations of real-world problems.
Collaboration and corporate problem-solving
The student works with other team members to solve simulated problems.
Learning using real-world processes, methods, or tools
One of the objectives of training is to provide new information and skills. Active learning exercises allow the student to solve simulated problems using the processes, methods, and tools they will use during an actual emergency.
Developing Synthetic Experience
Many disasters or emergencies occur infrequently. Active learning provides students simulated or synthetic experiences. This type of learning can provide a kind of
Problem-solving muscle memory the students can draw upon during a real incident.
Which Method of Active Learning?
Active learning modalities range from simple to complex. Simple active or experiential learning techniques require limited planning, preparation, and facilitation which makes them a popular choice. Tabletops exercises, hybrid tabletops, and wargames are more complex. They require more significant preparation and facilitation. If both are valid techniques what is the advantage of one over the other?
The advantage is the quality of your end-product. The greater the level of pre-exercise planning and preparation the more significant the value of your end-product becomes. A round table discussion may expose valid points for consideration. A well-organized tabletop can focus on specific problems and expose details that may improve or compound an operational issue.
The more you put into your active learning exercise, the more you will get out of it. If your goal is to prepare for a worst-case scenario, you need the best training and end products from your exercise. Reviewing real-world incidents will help identify the tools and procedures you should include in your exercise. Your training should provide opportunities for corporate problem-solving and relevant decision making.
Four active learning methods well suited for the topics of emergencies operations and disaster management are: tabletops, hybrid tabletops, blended tabletops, and wargames. All of the methods employ a scenario which is a simulated event or problem. The scenario becomes the basis for the decision making and problem-solving during the exercise.
Tabletops: FEMA defines tabletops as: “Discussion-based sessions where team members meet in an informal classroom setting to discuss their roles during an emergency and their responses to a particular emergency situation. A facilitator guides the participants through a discussion of one or more scenarios.” The difference between a round table discussion and a tabletop exercise is the level of detail in the scenario and degree of engagement by the facilitator.
Hybrid Tabletops: This type of exercise is based on a regular tabletop but adds operational artifacts, policies, and procedures to increase the complexity of the game.
Operational artifacts can be area maps, checklists, or operational plans.
Blended Tabletops: This exercise combines a hybrid tabletop with limited functional activities. The functional activities may include some field operations. It is especially useful combining command and control processes with field activities.
Wargames: A wargame is a tightly focused simulation that employs rules and procedures. A wargame can analyze specific or complex problems. Wargames utilize structured decision periods and simulate the passage of time. Of the four methods wargames require the greatest preparation and facilitation support. Larger organizations employ wargame teams to simulate and analyze problems during actual critical incidents.
Developing Your Scenario
From a basic tabletop to a wargame, the scenario is the engine that drives the simulation and the exercise. The scenario is the narrative framework for your active learning exercise. The scenario includes the initial set of facts (Ex: a wind driven wildfire is burning in our direction) and additional information introduced by exercise injects. The participants must consider new information or changes in circumstances delivered by the injects. There are four factors in developing a scenario: defining your goals, validity, limitations, and continuity.
Goal of the Exercise
To develop successful scenario, you must define the purpose of the exercise. Are you evaluating a plan, testing a team, or working through a potential problem? You must also explain how you will analyze and manipulate the problem. The exercise could be an earthquake scenario but there are many questions that could be explored. Is the exercise about rescue operations, logistics, evacuations, or crisis communications? Are we simulating the first responders or the strategic decision-makers? The goal of the exercise must be clearly defined to develop a believable scenario.
An essential asset of active learning is the connection to simulating real-world events. Participants learn by working through problems they may face. This supports the validity of your scenario. If your exercise scenario involves a zombie apocalypse it may be entertaining but people will not take it seriously. If the scenario has everything (plane crash, Ebola outbreak, active shooters etc.), they will dismiss this as well.
Scenario validity measures how realistically the exercise represents real world events. There are several ways to develop a valid scenario. Look at real world incidents in peer organizations. Take the facts from the incident and build them into your scenario. Another approach is to look at problems you have experienced or expect to confront. Build your scenario on those facts.
Limiting the Scenario
After your scenario is finished, take each significant event and estimate how many decisions and actions would be required to resolve them. Transpose the list over the available exercise time. If you have a scenario with five or six major events and 90 minutes for the exercise, you will never get through it. Limit your scenario to what can be realistically accomplished in the corresponding exercise time.
The best exercises are ones that follow a narrative. A way to build your scenario is to examine a similar real-world incident. Decide which part of the incident you wish to simulate in your exercise. Do a chart of the significant events. Select what events and injects you wish to include in your exercise. Compare the chart against the available training time. The point is not to make the activity easy for the participants but to ensure the exercise meets your goals within the time available.
Executives have risen through their professions by developing solutions and acting in a variety of circumstances. Career promotions often lead to the expectation executives will participate in non-traditional decision-making such as disaster response and emergency management. Active learning is an efficient and proven method to introduce executives to critical problem-solving. Are you preparing for the worst? Then its time to put the problem on the table. You can game it now or live it later.