7-Step Process in Effective Tabletop Exercises

May 13, 2024

Proactive preparation is paramount for organizations seeking to safeguard their digital assets and mitigate potential risks. One effective strategy for enhancing cyber resilience is conducting tabletop exercises, which simulate real-world cyber incidents in a controlled environment.

These exercises not only assess an organization’s response capabilities but also provide valuable insights for refining incident response (IR) plans and training personnel. Let’s explore the key steps involved in running a cybersecurity tabletop exercise.

Tabletop Exercise
  1. Define Objectives and Scope: Before starting on a tabletop exercise, it’s crucial to establish clear objectives and define the scope of the exercise. What specific scenarios or threats do you want to simulate? Are there particular systems or assets that need to be prioritized? By articulating your objectives and scope upfront, you can ensure that the exercise remains focused and aligns with your organization’s overarching security goals.
  2. Develop Scenario and Injects: The heart of any tabletop exercise is the scenario – a fictional narrative that sets the stage for the simulated cyber incident. The scenario should be realistic, relevant to your organization’s industry and threat landscape, and tailored to meet your objectives. Additionally, injects – predefined events or developments introduced during the exercise – add complexity and realism to the scenario, challenging participants to think on their feet and adapt their response strategies accordingly.

Example Tabletop Exercise Scenarios:

Ransomware Attack: In this scenario, participants are confronted with a simulated ransomware attack that has compromised critical systems and encrypted sensitive data. The scenario unfolds with the discovery of a ransom note demanding payment in cryptocurrency for the decryption key. Participants must assess the scope of the attack, contain its spread, restore affected systems from backups, and decide on a course of action regarding ransom negotiation.

Phishing Campaign: This scenario involves a sophisticated phishing campaign targeting employees with malicious emails containing malware-laden attachments or links to fake login pages. Participants must respond to reports of suspicious emails, identify compromised accounts, revoke access credentials, and implement additional security measures to mitigate the risk of further phishing attempts. The scenario may escalate with the discovery of a data breach resulting from compromised credentials.

Distributed Denial of Service (DDoS) Attack: In this scenario, participants are faced with a DDoS attack targeting the organization’s website or online services, causing disruption to normal operations. The scenario unfolds with a sudden influx of traffic overwhelming network resources, resulting in service degradation or outage. Participants must quickly assess the situation, implement traffic filtering and mitigation measures, and communicate with stakeholders to manage the impact on customers and business operations.

Example Injects:

New Phishing Campaign: Injects may introduce additional phishing emails targeting different departments or containing updated social engineering tactics to test employee awareness and response effectiveness.
Data Exfiltration: Injects may simulate the discovery of unauthorized data exfiltration activities, prompting participants to investigate the source of the breach, assess the extent of data exposure, and implement containment measures to prevent further leakage.

Third-Party Vendor Compromise: Injects may introduce a scenario where a third-party vendor or supplier’s systems are compromised, potentially exposing sensitive information or providing attackers with a foothold to infiltrate the organization’s network. Participants must assess the impact on their own systems and coordinate with the vendor to address the breach.

Regulatory Compliance Requirements: Injects may simulate the involvement of regulatory authorities or law enforcement agencies in response to a cyber incident, adding a layer of complexity to the scenario and requiring participants to navigate legal and regulatory obligations while managing the incident response.

Media Attention: Injects may introduce the scenario of media inquiries or public scrutiny following a cyber incident, testing participants’ ability to communicate effectively with external stakeholders, protect the organization’s reputation, and manage the fallout from adverse publicity.

  1. Select Participants and Roles: Effective tabletop exercises involve a cross-functional team representing various departments and stakeholders within the organization. This may include IT personnel, security analysts, legal counsel, communications staff, and senior leadership. Each participant is assigned specific roles and responsibilities based on their expertise and functional area, ensuring comprehensive coverage of response activities and decision-making processes.
  2. Conduct Pre-Exercise Briefing: Prior to initiating the tabletop exercise, it’s essential to conduct a pre-exercise briefing to orient participants and set expectations. This briefing should provide an overview of the scenario, review objectives and rules of engagement, and outline logistics such as communication protocols and reporting procedures. Clear communication is key to ensuring that participants understand their roles and responsibilities and can effectively collaborate during the exercise.
  3. Facilitate the Exercise: During the tabletop exercise, the facilitator guides participants through the scenario, presenting injects and prompting discussions to simulate real-time decision-making and response actions. Participants are encouraged to communicate, share information, and coordinate their efforts as they navigate through the evolving cyber incident. The facilitator plays a crucial role in maintaining the pace of the exercise, ensuring active engagement, and capturing key insights and observations for post-exercise analysis.
  4. Debrief and Evaluate: Following the conclusion of the tabletop exercise, it’s essential to conduct a thorough debriefing session to reflect on the experience and evaluate performance. Participants should have the opportunity to discuss what worked well, what challenges they encountered, and identify areas for improvement. The debriefing session serves as a valuable learning opportunity, enabling organizations to identify strengths and weaknesses in their IR capabilities and develop actionable recommendations for enhancing cyber resilience.
  5. Implement Lessons Learned: The insights gained from the tabletop exercise are only valuable if they are translated into tangible improvements to your organization’s cybersecurity posture. Based on the lessons learned during the exercise, develop an action plan outlining specific steps and initiatives to address identified gaps and enhance incident response preparedness. This may include updating policies and procedures, enhancing technical controls, providing additional training and awareness programs, or refining communication protocols.

Time to Get Proactive

Running a cybersecurity tabletop exercise is a proactive approach to strengthening your organization’s cyber defenses and enhancing IR capabilities. By defining objectives, developing realistic scenarios, engaging cross-functional participants, and leveraging the insights gained from the exercise, organizations can effectively identify and mitigate cyber risks, ultimately bolstering their resilience in the face of evolving threats.

Are you interested in running a tabletop exercise in your organization, but not quite sure where to start? ANM cybersecurity experts are here to help! Set up some time with one of them today.


Kelly Gieg

Kelly Gieg

Cybersecurity Solutions Architect

Kelly is a seasoned cybersecurity professional with over two decades of experience in the technology sector. Specializing in security operations, vulnerability management, threat intelligence, incident response, detection engineering, threat hunting, and gap assessments, Kelly has made significant contributions across various industries including technology, healthcare, telecom, and finance. He holds a master’s degree in information systems and currently maintains multiple certifications from SANS and MITRE. With a proven track record of implementing robust security measures and mitigating risks, Kelly brings extensive expertise and a strategic approach to safeguarding organizations against cyber threats.

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