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.
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
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 another 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:
- 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.
- 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.
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:
- How to Run an Effective Brainstorming SessionLisa Jo Rudy16 Jul 2021
- 19 Top Brainstorming Techniques to Generate Ideas for Every SituationLisa Jo Rudy23 Apr 2020
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.
Editorial Note: This content was originally published in 2016. We're sharing it again because our editors have determined that this information is still accurate and relevant.