11 Key Rehearsal Techniques to Keep Your Plan From Getting Torpedoed

In 1914, a German U-boat off the coast of England fired a torpedo that sunk the British passenger liner Lusitania.  Even though there were plenty of life vests for every passenger and more than enough seats in the available life boats, most passengers did not survive the encounter.

One key reason was that they did not know what to do, they weren’t prepared:  they hadn’t rehearsed.  To make sure you are ready for your critical moment, here are 11 rehearsal techniques you can use so that things go right when it really matters.

rehearsal technique

Dangerous Waters

In Dead Wake: The Last Crossing of the Lusitania, author Erik Larson recounts the riveting tale of drama, intrigue, and disaster when the massive  British luxury passenger ship sailing from New York to England was torpedoed by a German U-Boat.  The book is thoroughly researched and bursting with interesting detail, yet it reads like a techno-thriller that is hard to put down.

Dead WakeOne scene he reconstructs from passenger diaries stuck me as particularly telling.  A few days before the attack, a man named George Kessler stood on the deck of the Lusitania watching a few sailors from the crew practice a life boat drill.

With England at war with Germany, and growing warnings of a German U-boat presence in English waters, the Captain had ordered these daily drills to ensure the safety of crew and passengers.

The sailors gathered around a life boat that they always used for this purpose.  It was already swung out and in position to launch; no preparation was needed with this boat, as would be necessary for all the others if used.

The sailor in charge ordered, “Man the boats.”  A few designated sailors put on their life jackets, climbed in and sat down.  That was it, end of the drill.  Same sailors, same boat, same time every day.  That was the routine.

As the sailors were putting everything back in place, Kessler was thinking about what he had just witnessed, and it didn’t make him very comfortable.  If the purpose of the lifeboat drill was to be sure that passengers and crew would know how to use the boats in time of crisis, they had very much missed the mark.

Kessler approached the sailor in charge, saying, “It’s all right drilling your crew, but why don’t you drill your passengers?”  He was told he should take it up with the Captain.  Kessler did so later on, but the Captain dismissed his concerns.  Nothing changed.

Fish in the Water

Not long after, the Lusitania sailed into the periscope cross-hairs of German submarine U-20 commanded by Walter Schweiger.  The U-Boat fired, the Lusitania was hit, and the ship began to sink.

Even though it took 18 minutes for the ship to slowly slip beneath the waves, chaos reigned on deck.  People had to rush below decks to their staterooms to get their life vests.  Even if they found a vest, most didn’t know how to put them on.

Boats were poorly launched by people who didn’t know how; many were not launched at all.  On some the lowering ropes tangled or came loose dumping their passengers into the icy sea.

It was clear that the drills and rehearsals directed by the Captain were inadequate to meet the need.  At the critical moment, they were not prepared.  If the Captain was serious about being ready, there was much more he could have done.

Rehearsal Techniques –  Types of rehearsal

If something is important, you need to rehearse, practice and prepare.  You may not be preparing to man the life boats, but certainly you and your team will face situations for which you want to be as ready as possible.

Here are 11 rehearsal techniques you can use to prepare yourself and your team to be ready for the big event when it comes.

Mental Rehearsal.  The simplest, quickest and easiest is to start by making sure you have done your own rehearsing.  Think through in your mind what you need to do and when, what your key actions are, where you need to be, and what you can do when things start to get off track.  This method is often used effectively by athletes.

Talk-Through.   This is just a simple verbal review; you talk with your team about what is supposed to happen as everyone listens.  In the Army we called this a “finger drill,” as in counting off on your fingers the things you would do.  Finger Drill is a pejorative term, used in the sense of “we could have done better, but it was just a finger drill.”

Brief-Backs.  This is a better version of the Talk-through.  Instead of the leader doing all the talking, he sets the stage, and talks through the timeline.  As each key action comes up, have your teammates brief back what they plan to do.

Team/section.  Instead of trying to gather the whole team, maybe just get key teams or sections together to practice their critical parts. This is similar to how time is set aside for Special Teams on football squads to practice.

Walk-Through.  Instead of talking, do some walking.  Go to the place you will be and use the tools you will use with some of your key people.

Key Leader.  If you have subordinate teams, bring in their leaders for Talk-Throughs, Brief-Backs, or Walk-Throughs.  If all your leaders are on the same page, there’s a better chance everyone else will be, too.

Critical event coming up? Rehearse with your key leaders! Click To Tweet

Network/Technical.  If communications is critical, set up the network and practice with it ahead of time.  It might be a computer network, radios, or some other technical tool.  Practice running through the timeline and exchanging necessary information to ensure all nodes can communicate and understand how they integrate into the whole.

Map Drill.  If what you are doing has a geographic component to it, break out a map or large sketch, gather around it, and as you talk through the plan, have everyone share what they are doing and where they are doing it by pointing it out.

Rock Drill.  Make a model of the ground or place that you can gather around or even walk around in.  Have a moderator talk through the timeline.  As actions come up, move people around so they can get a visual and spatial sense of where they are and what they are supposed to be doing.  You can also use mock-ups or models.

Rehearsing? Use maps, sketches, models, and mock-ups to make it better. Click To Tweet

As an example, check out this clip from the movie The Dirty Dozen.  Before the big raid, the Major is using a model of a headquarters building and a rhyming scheme to help his men envision what they need to do to be successful.

Full Dress Rehearsal.  At the top end, you can get everyone involved and go through the full maneuver from top to bottom, the same way your local High School might prepare for opening night of their spring musical by running through the entire show.  Lewis and Clark used a version of this approach on the first day of their epic journey when they used a Hudson’s Bay start.

Red Team/Contingency.  For added depth, consider adding a Red Team element.  These people would be tasked to role-play things that might go wrong, or actions the competition might take to counter yours.

After you have worked through the base plan, go through it again but this time have the Red Team inject some actions that force you to figure out how to respond.  Maybe they have it suddenly start raining, or the power goes out during the keynote presentation or someone critical suddenly falls sick.

Expect the unexpected; use a Red Team when you rehearse. Click To Tweet

Rehearsal Techniques – The Takeaway

If you have something important that just has to be done well, then you need to rehearse.  Depending on how important it is and how much time you have, there is a wide variety of rehearsal techniques you can use.

You can even use these rehearsal techniques in combinations; be sure to build them into your planning timeline. Start with a brief-back by your key leaders, then have them lead section rehearsals so their teams get it right, then bring them back for a key-leader walk-through.  After that, have the Red Team start tossing in unexpected changes so you can figure out how to adjust.

If you prepare well with solid rehearsals, the chance that your event will go well increases dramatically.

When the time comes, you will be ready for anything, even if something happens to torpedo your plans.

Lead On!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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