What Are Tabletop Exercises? A Guide to Crisis Preparedness

Tabletop exercises simulate real-life emergencies. If your organization has gaps in its crisis response, or there are disconnects between you and your vendors, this is the time to discover them.

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1. What are tabletop exercises?
2. What a tabletop exercise accomplishes
3. How does a tabletop exercise work?
4. Tips for effective tabletop exercises

Today, businesses and organizations face an array of potential crises, from natural disasters to cyberattacks. Even commonplace events such as car trouble can derail business trips and opportunities, putting personnel in difficult situations that require communication and collaboration among many stakeholders.

In unpredictable circumstances, understanding how to prepare and react for any outcome is paramount. This is where tabletop exercises should come into play.

Tabletop exercises serve as invaluable tools for organizations to simulate and prepare for various emergency scenarios in a controlled environment. Through these exercises, participants can test response procedures, clarify communication channels, and identify gaps in existing emergency action plans. Additionally, organizations can use these exercises to pressure test their vendors’ capabilities in an emergency. As a result, expertly run tabletops can help businesses become more effective and resilient.


A tabletop exercise is a scenario-based discussion designed to simulate real-life emergencies. Unlike fire drills and other trainings that require physical action, tabletop exercises focus on fostering dialogue, decision-making, and collaboration among participants.

For example: An organization that sends employees to the Middle East for business trips may run through a scenario where an employee experiences a car accident on the way to a meeting. The scenario would include details about the employee – their age, gender, general health, familiarity with the location – as well as the context, such as how the employee rented the car, what assets they have with them, and where they were headed at the time of the accident. Given this situation, along with new information that could further complicate things such as a lack of reliable roadside assistance in the country, what should each stakeholder do, with whom should they communicate, and how will this issue be resolved?

Tabletop exercises are like rehearsals, where participants discuss and strategize responses to hypothetical scenarios. These exercises typically involve a diverse group of stakeholders, including representatives from security, HR, legal, communications, and other relevant departments.

The end goal of a tabletop exercise is to have a solid standard operating procedure (SOP) in place, where every stakeholder understands their roles and responsibilities in response to any event. If the exercise is conducted internally, every stakeholder in security, HR, etc. will understand what to do; if conducted between an organization and their security provider, each team will understand their role, when they should expect to hear from the other party, and what the desired outcome would be. If your organization has gaps in how it responds to a crisis, or there are disconnects between you and your vendors, this is the time to discover them.


The overall goal of a tabletop exercise is to identify an organization’s strengths and weaknesses in the communication process during an emergency or crisis. Again, this could be communication within an internal team, or between an organization and their security or duty of care provider.

The types of emergencies and crises that you can review during a tabletop range from cyberattacks to natural disasters to acts of terrorism, to the more mundane such as food poisoning incidents during work travel or misplacing travel documents – essentially, anything that could impact people or operations.

During a tabletop exercise, a team should look to accomplish the following tasks:

  • Review and test existing standard operating procedures: By running through an exercise, stakeholders can view how their SOP performs in real-time. An SOP that has not been tested may have breakdowns in communication or redundancies that inhibit effectiveness.
  • Assess information sharing: An especially important aspect of a tabletop exercise that is run between an organization and a third-party provider is understanding how information between the two sides will be shared.
  • Identify areas for improvement: An SOP with weaknesses doesn’t need to be thrown away. After a tabletop exercise, an organization can identify and work to shore up areas where there was a communication breakdown – codifying who should contact who at a certain step, or enlisting the services of a provider who can help.
  • Enhance situational awareness: Practicing a tabletop exercise can help stakeholders improve their awareness and decision-making skills, by testing their ability to respond appropriately and in a timely fashion.
  • Build relationships and collaborate: Tabletop exercises bring people from different departments and organizations together – to execute, problem-solve, and eventually improve the team’s ability to help one another. This is vitally important to both performance and morale.


Tabletop exercises typically follow a structured format designed to simulate real-life crisis scenarios while facilitating constructive discussions and decision-making. These exercises often span a duration of one to two hours, although the exact timeframe may vary depending on the complexity of the scenario and the objectives of the exercise.

Participants in tabletop exercises represent various roles and functions within the organization’s crisis response framework, including senior leadership, department heads, subject matter experts, and frontline staff. Each participant brings unique perspectives and expertise to the exercise, contributing to a comprehensive evaluation of the organization’s readiness and response capabilities.

Every organization may choose to run a tabletop exercise in a different format, but a starting framework is as follows:


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When bringing a team or teams together to execute a tabletop exercise, it’s important to establish rules and guidelines to put people in the best position to succeed. Examples of typical rules might include encouraging respect among participants, an expectation of confidentiality of what is discussed in the meeting, and active participation by all stakeholders, with the understanding that this is a no-fault, learning environment.


Scenario-based discussions form the core of tabletop exercises, with facilitators presenting realistic scenarios tailored to the organization’s specific risks and vulnerabilities. These scenarios may include a wide range of crisis events, such as natural disasters, security incidents, medical emergencies, or cyberattacks. Through scenario-based discussions, participants are challenged to assess the situation, make decisions, and coordinate response efforts in a controlled environment.

For example, a tabletop exercise may posit that an executive at the company is on a business trip to meet high-level clients, but the morning of the meeting, they contact their duty of care provider and complain of illness. They mention where they ate dinner the night before, and describe their symptoms now, including fever, vomiting, and stomach pain. What is everyone’s first course of action?

From here, it’s time to work through new details, or “injects.”


Injects play a crucial role in tabletop exercises by introducing new developments or details into the scenario, simulating the dynamic nature of real-life crises. These injects may include additional information, unexpected events, or changing circumstances that require participants to adapt their response strategies accordingly.

Injects are strategically timed throughout the exercise to maintain engagement and challenge participants’ problem-solving abilities. Facilitators use injects to escalate the scenario, introduce new challenges, or prompt specific actions from participants. By incorporating injects, tabletop exercises create a dynamic and immersive learning environment that closely mirrors the unpredictability of real-world emergencies.

Injects from the situation above might be that as the day progresses, the executive feels worse, not better. They are experiencing dehydration and body pains, and needs to be transported to a hospital for medical treatment. Given this new information, what actions is each stakeholder taking?


Active participation and engagement are essential components of successful tabletop exercises. Participants are encouraged to contribute their expertise, insights, and perspectives during scenario discussions, fostering collaboration and collective problem-solving. By actively engaging in tabletop exercises, participants gain firsthand experience in crisis response, develop critical thinking skills, and enhance their preparedness for real-world emergencies.

Facilitators play a key role in promoting active participation by encouraging open dialogue, facilitating constructive discussions, and ensuring that all voices are heard. Through active participation, organizations can leverage the diverse knowledge and expertise of their teams to identify potential gaps, refine response strategies, and strengthen overall resilience.


When tabletop exercises end, it’s crucial to conduct a thorough review to identify lessons learned, strengths, and areas for improvement. Facilitators should lead debriefing sessions to gather feedback from participants and evaluate the exercise’s effectiveness, fostering open communication and reflection. Organizations should then review exercise documentation, participant feedback, and post-exercise assessments to analyze performance and identify weaknesses or gaps in communication, protocol, and expectations. By addressing these gaps, organizations can streamline response efforts and enhance overall resilience, ensuring readiness in the face of evolving threats and challenges.


Every organization will run tabletop exercises in a slightly different way, but there are some things that any person in charge of running an exercise or participating in one can do to make them even more effective.

Here are five tips for the best tabletop exercises:

  • Review your SOP prior to the exercise: Many organizations create standard operating procedures for an emergency, and then let them collect dust until it’s time to act. Going into a tabletop exercise, take time to review your existing SOP and identify any areas where you expect there to be friction or issues. This way, you’ll have a head start on thinking of ways to improve the SOP prior to execution.
  • Allow stakeholders to find their own way: If you oversee running a tabletop exercise or lead a team or department, it can be tempting to help lead people to the right answers right away. Instead, allow team members to talk out their solutions and dilemmas – you may find that they come to the right answer themselves, or propose something even more effective.
  • Understand what is covered: A major part of addressing an emergency, is knowing what tools, services, coverage, and other help you have. For example, if an office catches fire, does your insurance policy cover damages? An emergency doesn’t stop when the fire gets put out – so you need to understand what is available to you and your team This is especially important when dealing with vendors and third-party providers that would take an active role in any emergency. Ask them the hard questions, such as whether they have assets and resources in-country to respond quickly; or will they help bring an employee back to their home country during a crisis, and not just to the nearest safe landing spot.
  • Make changes to related documents: A tabletop exercise is a discussion — so what comes after the discussion? Make changes to your SOPs, update your written emergency action plan and/or business continuity plan. Make sure that the changes you’ve made to your SOP are codified.
  • Challenge your team: An emergency doesn’t pull punches, so while you want to support and encourage your team, it’s also important to keep tabletop exercises dynamic. To maximize effectiveness, vary the scenarios and injects that are used, to challenge participants and simulate changing situations realistically. If the team gets stuck, encourage open communication, collaboration, and critical thinking. This is a no-fault exercise, but it’s still about learning and problem-solving.

Tabletop exercises are essential tools for organizations to bolster their preparedness and resilience against potential crises. By simulating realistic scenarios and engaging diverse stakeholders, these exercises facilitate the identification of communication gaps, weaknesses in emergency plans, and the refinement of response strategies. Through tabletop exercises, organizations can take a proactive stance toward preparedness, ensuring they are equipped to navigate uncertainties and safeguard their operations, employees, and stakeholders.


The Global Guardian team is standing by to support your duty of care and security requirements with a comprehensive suite of solutions. To learn more about our services, complete the form below or call us at + 1 (703) 566-9463.

This article was first published to the Global Guardian Website, to view the original article, click here

Global Guardian

Global Guardian is a provider of world-class security solutions, custom-tailored to the individual needs of its global client base. The company offers an integrated suite of best-in-class security services that help clients identify and mitigate the risks of traveling and doing business both overseas and domestically.

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