Are You Inviting the Right People to Your Exercises?

A couple of days ago I started reading Rumsfeld’s Rules – Leadership Lessons in Business, Politics, War, and Life.  Hopefully you have some familiarity with Donald Rumsfeld – the man was a naval aviator, US Congressman, aide to four US presidents, corporate CEO, and is the only person to ever serve as Secretary of Defense twice.  Politics aside, Mr. Rumsfeld has had quite a prolific career.  Throughout this career he has assembled a variety of mantra, proverbs, and sayings which he has used to help guide his career and serve as advice to others.

Early in the book, Mr. Rumsfeld talks about meetings.  What he mentions struck me as solid guidance not only for meetings but also for exercises.  He says “There is a balance that needs to be struck in determining who to invite to a meeting.  You want those who need to be there to contribute substance to the discussion.  But it can be useful to have people who may not be in a position to directly offer substantive input but will benefit from hearing how and why certain decision are being reached.”  Very often exercise offer great opportunity for people to learn – not only the participants but ‘shadowers’ as well.

Mr. Rumsfeld continues on to say “Including a range of people can also ensure that a variety of perspectives will be considered and help identify gaps in information and views.”  Consider that we build, conduct, and evaluate exercises primarily to test plans, polices, and procedures.  This testing is best performed by a spectrum of individuals giving different ideas and perspectives.  Someone may interpret a policy in a completely different way or have an approach to a problem that hasn’t been considered prior.  These fresh ideas, even if flawed, should be brought out into the open for discussion and consideration.

If you’ve followed this blog for any amount of time, you probably know that I prefer smaller meetings and have stressed that participants in exercises should be of a manageable number.  As Mr. Rumsfeld says, there is a balance that must be struck.  You want to be inclusive, but large numbers lend themselves to over-discussion and tangents.  For meetings do you expect the person to add value?  Should they be there given their area of responsibility?  Similarly in exercises is the individual associated with the objectives of the exercise?  (Recall that in exercises we should always reflect on the objectives throughout the entire design process).  When we add more participants to an exercise we need to ensure that they have something to participate in, so injects must be written for them and their activities must be evaluated.

A few years back my team was designing a table top exercise as a lead-in to a significant full-scale exercise.  We did not want to start the full-scale with the initial response, as so many often times are, as the objectives of that exercise were to test the extended response and to examine issues beyond the initial response.  That said, we felt it not fair for us to design such a large exercise by dictating what the first responders would do in the first 48 hours, rather we wanted them to tell us themselves.  So we designed a table top exercise to provide us with their actions both ‘boots on the ground’ as well as policy-level including emergency declarations, evacuation areas, and mutual aid requests.  We were quite fortunate that the design process for the exercise as a whole was very well received and many agencies wanted to participate – from federal, state, county, and local jurisdictions.  The exercise was centered on the state capital, which tends to garner even more attention and participation and included a scenario that most agencies have not participated in prior.  Needless to say, we had a lot of interest.  Nearly every agency invited to the table top wanted to bring not one or two additional people but often times three or four.  We discussed this matter with a few of the key agencies, asking of these were needed participants or observers.  The answer we got was that they were both.  Because of the technical nature of the incident, many agencies realized they needed their main spokesperson supported by one or more technical experts.  We realized this was a fair and reasonable request, but we still needed to figure out how to accommodate them all!

We decided to permit each representative to have a ‘second chair’ – someone seated directly behind them who could advise on technical matters.  Additional specialists were available to them in an adjacent room, which had the discussion live broadcast to them via closed circuit television.  Specialists could be ‘swapped out’ at any time based on the needs of the discussion.  This solution worked well for the exercise, keeping the number of direct participants manageable and meeting the needs of participants to have their specialists available to advise on technical matters – which truly helped inform their decisions and ultimately the outcome of the exercise.

Sometimes, though, you have to say ‘no’.  Realize that as an exercise designer you MUST set a firm deadline on additional participants.  Participants that are added late can set your design team back significantly by needing to ensure that they are written into the exercise and have sufficient activity to make their participation worth while for both them as well as the exercise as a whole – which can be particularly challenging if they are from a different jurisdiction or discipline altogether.  I’ve had to turn down several interested parties and while it’s often difficult to say no, it’s often for the better – and your design team will respect you for it.

What thoughts do you have on ‘right sizing’ your meetings and exercises?  Is there certain guidance that you use?

©2014 Timothy Riecker

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