“Role-storming” creativity: how to multiply imagination

How switching gears from brainstorming to groups playing a role and pretending to be someone else was a success
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It was hard to believe that highly paid electrical engineers, division managers and chip designers would attend my team sessions but quickly exhaust their creativity.

As a productivity manager in Silicon Valley, I sought breakthroughs on semiconductor chip yields, quality, customer service and even turnover. I wasn’t asking our employees for much, just some ‘brainstorming’ ideas to beat our competition and keep their paychecks coming.

How Creativity is Crushed

It slowly dawned on me that these near-geniuses, in their fields, were afraid of looking foolish among their peers. The fear of public ridicule was mightier than the desire to seize an opportunity, prevent trouble or tackle an existing problem.

At the end of my corporate life and then out as an entrepreneur, the ill-effects of stifled creativity still nagged at me. Powerful inhibitions kept smart people from speaking up. This vacuum snuck into boardrooms and staff meetings. As talkative ones kept blurting out unhelpful platitudes—the rest kept quiet.

Role-Playing + Brainstorming

I don’t remember the exact day, but I do remember the dramatic outcome. I switched gears and asked brainstorming groups to play a role and pretend to be someone else.

My thinking was to distract their minds from the fear of ridicule or public embarrassment. Colorful markers in hand, I challenged them to stay in the role and come up with possible solutions to corporate issues and client challenges.

What would Abraham Lincoln suggest for improving product yields?

How would Mother Theresa solve the problem of key employee turnover?

What would Steve Jobs say about matching a competitor’s brilliant move?

How would Winston Churchill seize a specific opportunity to create value?

What would Eleanor Roosevelt do to handle customer complaints?

What would a future (unborn) president suggest to expand international markets

Multiplying Imagination

The immediate effects were astounding. It was as if we were multiplying the imagination of every person in the room. Quiet ones spoke up—thoughtful attendees dropped their self-consciousness—‘bored’ participants suddenly showed fired-up interest.

This new ‘role-storming’ technique doubled the average number of ideas from regular brainstorming sessions. Training Magazine published the concept as, “A storm of ideas.” We included the technique in a book called, “Quality At Work.”

The Original Brainstorming Story

In the 1930s and 1940s, Alex Osborn’s began experimenting with “storming” the brain in his advertising work at General Electric, Chrysler, American Tobacco, and BF Goodrich. Following

WWII, he delivered more creative advertising breakthroughs with his new concept than with people working alone. His brainstorming sensation cruised through the 50s, 60s and even the 70s. Unfortunately, its competitive edge began to fade and participant interest in un-facilitated, two-to-three-hour sessions plummeted. Osborn himself said that his ‘brainstorming’ tool had grown too fast and too big—people rarely followed his four major rules:

  • Go for quantity of ideas (quantity breeds quality)
  • Hold criticism until later (judicial critique)
  • Go for unusual ideas (freewheeling)
  • Combine and improve on suggestions

Role-Storming to the Rescue—The New Global Tool

With renewed structure and the ‘role-playing’ element, role-storming rose to be one of the top ten creativity tools in the world. Announced in the 1980s, it built on brainstorming by clarifying divergent and convergent thinking. Divergent thinking expands outward in new and unexpected directions. There is no criticism, praise or even comment. It’s harder to criticize Winston Churchill or Mother Theresa than your pal in the next cubicle. Role-storming works best with an ‘adult’ in the room, a ‘profile’ statement at the beginning, and three rounds of each person pretending they are someone else.

Convergent thinking pulls the reins of creativity back in with comments, critique and voting. This happens too soon with regular brainstorming. Secret or private voting successively narrows the large number of ideas down to a manageable few. Consensus builds as the team witnesses the vote process and sees the idea winners advance to the next stage.

The Creativity Factor

Role-storming builds on Osborn’s original brainstorming rules (quantity, no criticism or praise, unusual ideas, combine). The most creative sessions are facilitated and begin by focusing on opportunities first, preventions second, and problems third. All ideas are written as suggested on paper, board or screen. A blank role-storming sheet looks like a target with a bulls-eye in the center. The large outer ring is for the creative ideas.

Creativity is fantastic but it must answer the original profile statement (O-P-P). Going toward the bulls-eye, the second largest ring is for winners of the first vote. The ring closest to the bulls-eye is for the winners of the second vote. Finally, the center circle is for the final consensus answer to the profile statement.

Done well, the entire role-storming process takes about sixty-to-ninety minutes.

  • Select a facilitator
  • Begin with a ‘Profile Statement’ of the opportunity, prevention or problem (O-P-P)
  • Facilitator assigns first ‘role’ and records all suggestions on whiteboard, paper or screen
  • Second ‘role’ assigned and new ideas written among first set of suggestions
  • Third round completed with a new ‘role’ (ideas mixed among first and second role ideas)

A collection of Role-storming Level 1 videos provides a deeper understanding of the profile statement, emotional contagion, imaginary plagiarism, event boundaries and “saint-sinner-winner” roles. All of these offer an expanded explanation of how playing a role re-wires the brain and multiplies imagination.

Rick Griggs speaks on Balanced Mastery, The Samsara of Life and his Rolestorming Creativity tool. He is a former Intel Corporation training manager. rick.griggs83@gmail.com 970.690.7327.

Categories: Business Insights, Management & Leadership