cybersecurity incident response

The Right Tabletop Scenario for Incident Response Testing

By Vibha Puthran, ERMProtect, Information Security Consultant

This is one in a series of articles on how organizations can ensure they are better prepared for a cyberattack.


In today's digital landscape, the inevitability of cybersecurity incidents affects organizations of all sizes. To effectively combat these threats, organizations must invest in robust cybersecurity incident response strategies. One powerful tool is tabletop exercises – simulated scenarios that test an organization's response to various cyber incidents. However, choosing the right tabletop scenario is crucial to ensuring these exercises are effective in preparing your team for real-world incidents.

Define Cybersecurity Incident Response Objectives

Before selecting a tabletop scenario, it's essential to define clear objectives for the exercise. What specific aspects of your cybersecurity incident response plan do you want to test or improve? Are you focusing on technical response capabilities, communication protocols, or decision-making processes? By outlining these objectives, you can tailor the scenario to address your organization's specific needs and goals.

Consider Relevance

The chosen scenario should be relevant to your organization's industry, size, and potential threats. For example, a financial institution may prioritize scenarios involving data breaches or ransomware attacks, while a healthcare provider may focus on scenarios related to patient data breaches or system downtime. By selecting a relevant scenario, participants can better relate to the exercise and apply the lessons learned to real-world situations.

Assess Complexity

The complexity of the scenario should align with the expertise of your cybersecurity incident response team. While it's tempting to create elaborate scenarios, overly complex exercises can overwhelm participants and detract from the learning objectives. Start with scenarios of moderate complexity, gradually increasing the difficulty as your team gains experience and confidence. This iterative approach ensures that participants are continually challenged while building upon their existing knowledge and skills.

Involve Stakeholders

Effective cybersecurity incident response involves collaboration across various departments within an organization. Therefore, it's essential to involve stakeholders from different areas – including IT, security, legal, communications, and executive leadership – in the tabletop exercise. By incorporating diverse perspectives, you can simulate realistic decision-making processes and identify potential gaps or bottlenecks in your incident response plan.

Focus on Learning

Tabletop exercises should be viewed as learning opportunities rather than pass/fail assessments. Encourage participants to openly discuss their actions, decisions, and challenges throughout the exercise. Facilitators should foster a collaborative environment where individuals feel comfortable sharing insights and asking questions. Additionally, consider conducting debrief sessions after the exercise to reflect on key takeaways and areas for improvement.

Promote Realism

While tabletop scenarios are simulations, they should strive to mimic real-world conditions as closely as possible. Incorporate elements such as time pressure, limited information, and unexpected developments to challenge participants and test their adaptability. Utilize realistic communication channels – such as email, phone calls, or messaging platforms – to simulate how information would flow during an actual incident. By promoting realism, you can better assess your team's readiness to respond effectively in crisis situations.

Measure Success of Your Cybersecurity Incident Response Plan

After completing the tabletop exercise, evaluate its success based on predefined metrics and objectives. Did participants demonstrate an understanding of their roles and responsibilities? Were communication channels effective in disseminating information and coordinating response efforts? Did the exercise reveal any weaknesses or areas for improvement in your incident response plan? Use these insights to refine your strategies and enhance preparedness for future incidents.

Cybersecurity Incident Response Wrap Up

Choosing the right tabletop scenario for cybersecurity incident response testing is essential for effectively assessing and improving your organization's readiness to combat cyber threats. By defining clear objectives, selecting relevant scenarios, assessing complexity, involving stakeholders, focusing on learning, promoting realism, and measuring success, you can conduct impactful tabletop exercises that empower your team to respond confidently and decisively in the face of adversity. Remember, preparedness is key to mitigating the impact of cybersecurity incidents and safeguarding your organization's assets and reputation.

ERMProtect Can Help with Cybersecurity Incident Response

ERMProtect has developed Incident Response Plans and conducted Tabletop Exercises for multiple clients across 30+ industry verticals. Please contact Silka Gonzalez at [email protected] or Judy Miller at [email protected] or 305-447-6750 for a demo of our incident response and digital forensic services or a free consultation.

Vibha Puthran is an Information Security Consultant at ERMProtect Cybersecurity Solutions. She is a Certified Computer Incident Handler and has experience in incident response investigations, digital forensics, table-top exercises, and security awareness training. She has a master’s degree in Information Security from Carnegie Mellon University.

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