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What Is Rolestorming? A Useful (+Playful) Group Brainstorming Method

Brainstorming is a
terrific technique for inspiring creative thinking and generating new ideas. Sometimes,
though, you may have a tough time getting the outcomes you need from a brainstorming
session
. When that happens, you need to go beyond traditional brainstorming
techniques, and it may be time to try rolestorming.

What is Rolestorming? It’s a group brainstorming method invented during the 1980’s by business guru Rick
Griggs. Its basic premise is simple: brainstorm while playing the role of
another person, and you’ll be more likely to suggest out-of-the-box, creative
ideas. While this approach may not sound like a game-changer, Griggs has built
a business around the outcomes of this unique creativity-booster.

Rolestorming Applying the Group Brainstorming Method
Rolestorming: Group brainstorming method in session. (graphic source)

Why Rolestorm? 

According to Griggs,
there are a number of issues associated with run-of-the-mill brainstorming.
Among them:

  • A built-in human tendency
    to support the first and/or most obvious ideas expressed (“Of course, that idea
    makes sense—why think of more ideas?
    “);
  • Anxiety about suggesting
    ideas that may not be generally accepted (“What if everyone thinks I’m an idiot
    for suggesting such a weird idea?
    ”);
  • General acquiescence to
    the most dominant personality in the room (“If Joe says it’s true it’s probably
    true—and even if it isn’t true, everyone always does what Joe says.
    ”);
  • Difficulty with
    on-the-spot creative thinking (“I can’t come up with anything fast enough, so I
    won’t bother trying.
    ”);
  • Challenges related to
    seeing other perspectives or getting “out of the weeds” when thinking through
    problems (“That idea is interesting, but it’ll never fly—our accounting
    system won’t handle that level of complexity.
    ”).

Rolestorming requires
participants to step out of their own skins and into someone else’s. This
experience allows them to think about the problem or opportunity in a new way—and, often, to come up with new and creative ideas.

According to Griggs, rolestorming
not only results in more creative ideas, but it also lowers anxiety.
Apparently, when people are asked to suggest ideas “in character” (rather than
in their own voice) they are less fearful and more likely to speak up. They
also find it easier to step away from the nitty gritty details and become more
innovative. This is the case even when individuals are typically shy, anxious,
or concerned about the response they’ll receive.

Types of Rolestorming 

There are several
different ways to “become” someone else, and each has its own plusses and
minuses. You’ll need to determine which approach is most likely to produce
results in your particular situation. It’s also possible to experiment with
different approaches to keep things fresh and interesting.

Different types of
rolestorming are built around different types of personas for participants to “try
on.” For example, participants might become:

  • A difficult or demanding
    client or customer;
  • A member of corporate
    upper management;
  • A figure from history
    with a strong reputation for a particular type of thinking;
  • A fictional figure with a
    particular type of thought process;
  • A superhero or super
    villain.

Participants can all take
the same perspective, choose from a list of options, or choose their own
perspective. They can work in groups, or individually. They may be asked to
interact in character, or simply to brainstorm as their given character.

Rules of Rolestorming

While brainstorming is a
process, rolestorming is more like a game. In some ways, this makes it easier
to establish and stick to ground rules. In general, rolestormers should:

  • Know or decide what role
    they will be playing.
  • Describe their character’s
    personal qualities and motivations.
  • List their character’s
    strengths and weaknesses.
  • Speak in character, using
    “I” when referring to their character.
  • Avoid referring to real
    circumstances or limitations; the purpose of the exercise is to get past day to
    day conundrums, and to come up with creative ideas that don’t reference lack of
    funds, supplies, staff, or time.

Preparation for Rolestorming

Rolestorming can be even
more demanding than ordinary group brainstorming, so it’s important to be
well-prepared before jumping in. To get started:

  • Find a facilitator who
    can manage this unique form of brainstorming method as well as more typical
    brainstorming. This person must be comfortable with silliness and unpredictability,
    and able to guide the process without dictating its direction. If possible,
    the facilitator should have some experience with acting or improvisation.
  • Identify a note taker and
    explain just what their role will be. In addition to the ordinary task of
    writing down ideas and conclusions, the note taker must be able to extrapolate
    ideas and conclusions from the role play. If Mary, in the character of a
    client, complains “the lines are always busy,” the note taker should jot down
    that concern–even though he hasn’t been specifically told to do so.
  • Have a clear plan for
    your rolestorming, and put it in writing–parameters for roles, interaction,
    length of time, follow-up, etc. For example, you may want to limit available
    roles to actual types of people your team may encounter or you may want to
    include fictional characters as well. You may want each individual to speak in
    character, or you may want characters to interact.
  • Know how you will end the
    session, and how you will use your outcomes

Ice Breakers

Rolestorming is, in
essence, a form of improvisational acting. Improv is great fun, and it can be
very creative, but it may be new to some of your team members. While some
people will love rolestorming and jump in with both feet, others will find it
embarrassing or confusing (at least, at first!).

As facilitator, your job
is to make sure that everyone is comfortable with this new type of
brainstorming method. To do this, you may want to show the process of rolestorming by
actually demonstrating some rolestorming by yourself or with a preselected partner. You
may also want to use some warm ups or icebreakers.

Icebreakers can be fun
interactive games that are unrelated to the group brainstorming process. For example

  • Ask if you could have a super
    power, what would it be–and why?
  • Ask “if our company were
    an animal, what kind would it be–and why?”
  • Tell a continuing story
    by starting off with an evocative lead (“it was a dark and stormy night. John
    and Mary were sitting by the fire when suddenly they heard a strange…“) and
    then passing the story on to the next person. Continue until the story comes
    back to you, and conclude with a silly but definite ending.
  • Play a game such as
    Pictionary or Charades which can involve all participants.

Consider using some
improvisation warm ups as well, to allow participants to get into the right
frame of mind with no strings attached. A few such warm ups include: 

  • The Machine. One person
    pairs a movement and sound (for example, their hand opens and closes while they
    make a squeaking noise). The next person “attaches” him or herself to the first
    player and adds his or her own movement and sound. This continues until each
    person is “part of the machine.”
  • Mirror. Split participants
    into pairs. Assign one member of each pair the role of mirror. The other member
    of each pair looks “into” their mirror, and makes slow movements while the
    mirror mimics them. Then switch roles.
  • Association Ball. Stand
    in a circle. Use a large, soft ball. Toss the ball to someone, saying an
    evocative word such as “school.” The catcher throws the ball to another person
    while saying a word they associate with “school” (such as “books”). The next
    catcher does the same, saying a word associated with “books” (“page”), and so
    forth until everyone has had a turn.

Get Started Rolestorming!

You can assign roles,
have participants randomly select roles from slips you’ve placed in a basket,
or allow participants to select their own roles.

Once everyone has a role,
show the group a list of questions about their character, and give them time to
prepare their answers. Depending upon your choice of topic and character type,
questions can range from “Why does your character want our product” to “What
are your character’s superpowers?”

Ask each individual in
turn to speak in character about the topic at hand. For example:

  1. Bob is Superman. He
    explains how he would solve client problems by simply using X-Ray vision to
    find the problem with the product, and then tell Jimmy Olson how to fix
    it. The note taker may jot down the idea that a product technician should be
    available to customers so that they can quickly and efficiently find and fix technical
    problems.
  2. Jane is a customer. She
    goes on a rant about how the product didn’t arrive on time; didn’t perform as
    expected; wasn’t quickly replaced; etc. The note taker may jot down problems
    that Jane has identified–late delivery, slow replacement of defective items,
    and so forth.

If appropriate, you may
want to have characters interact with one another.  For example: 

  • Jane and Bob are sales
    managers who rarely interact personally with clients. In Rolestorming, they
    interact as Client and Sales Person. Jane asks for detailed information about
    the product before she makes a purchase, and the sales person realizes he has
    almost no details available.

If time allows, once
everyone has had a chance to rolestorm, do it again–reassigning different
roles.

You can discuss your
discoveries after each role play, or ask participants to discuss what they’ve
discovered after the end of the session with the help of the facilitator and
note taker.

Plan for Next Steps

As with any form of
brainstorming method, rolestorming is intended to produce actionable ideas. Once you’ve
reviewed your findings, selected the most relevant and list them. Now it’s time
to plan for your next steps.

What do your discoveries
suggest for action?  List the actions you
feel are most appropriate based on your findings. For example, based on the
rolestorming experiences described above, it may be appropriate to assign or
hire technicians to interact with clients, to train the salesforce so that they
can provide details about the products they sell, and so forth.

Assign multiple
individuals to each action, ensuring that those individuals have the knowledge
and ability to move forward. Set goals for each group. Set a timetable for
reaching each goal, and plan for updates and group meetings to check on
progress and setbacks.

Conclusion

Rolestorming is a unique
form of group brainstorming that involves role playing. By taking on a character
other than oneself, participants can shed inhibitions and think outside their
own job description or pre-suppositions. 

Rolestormers may play real-world
characters such a clients or managers, or they may play fictional characters
such as superheroes, business leaders, or well-known celebrities. Ideas generated by rolestorming
can be groundbreaking–but they are only useful if they’re properly recorded
and then acted upon.

This tutorial on Rolestorming is part of our Ultimate Guide to Better Brainstorming Techniques. Learn more about how to run other types of brainstorming sessions and additional effective methods to brainstorming: 

Brainstorming techniques are great for coming up with a number of innovative ideas, which you can then use to transform your business and generate results.