How to create shared purpose with a role-playing workshop

May 20, 2014

I'm sitting in a meeting with a few stakeholders and some of my colleagues when this happens:  

Stakeholder 1: I think that we should do x.  

Stakeholder 2: No that's not right. We can't do that because our back-end is too messy to support it.  

Stakeholder 3: No, you're both wrong. You just haven't looked into it properly. As a matter of fact, I'm the only one you should be listening to. Not even users are right.  

OK, that last line was a bit of an exaggeration, but you get the point. Whatever type of organisation you work in, you've probably been in at least one meeting that's ended up with people arguing unproductively amongst themselves. This can leave everyone in the room feeling uncomfortable, looking at their phones, and pretending to check their important emails.  

As a digital agency, we ask a lot from stakeholders. We tell them to empathise with users and step out of their comfort zones to be creative. On top of that, we expect them to empathise with each other so they can make decisions in a spirit of mutual cooperation.   So how did we get a group of stakeholders to stop arguing and start playing nice?  Enter role-playing.  

What is role-playing?

Role-playing is a method used to help people empathise with users, objects, or systems by physically acting it out. People can stand up and move around or they can sit at a table and have a conversation. The level of immersion can vary based on the project, or even the comfort level of the people involved.

In the past, we've often used role-playing internally for designing and understanding end-to-end journeys, and all the touch points and relationships along the way. However, we have found that this exercise is also a great way of getting stakeholders to understand the product journey, and, building on this, we've discovered that it's a great tool for helping stakeholders to empathise with each other.  

A scenario where role-playing helped

When we set out to design and build the user onboarding journey for a client's website, we encountered a complex web of systems, and a group of stakeholders who struggled to reach a consensus and lacked clear ownership of key decisions. We decided to run a role-playing workshop to help:

  • Make sense of the systems involved and how they would need to work together
  • Mitigate the impact of organisational politics and competing agendas
  • Enable consensus and concrete decision-making  

Planning your own role-playing workshop

Identify 'who', 'what', 'when', and 'where'

Identify all the expected actors, touchpoints, and back-end systems in the journey, and have a rough idea where the journey might start and end, to keep the workshop in-scope.  

Assign roles

The second step in the planning process is to start assigning which roles the stakeholders and people from your team will be playing. For our recent workshop, we had the stakeholders play a role in their specific field of expertise, if applicable (i.e. back-end dev played the back-end system, designer played the front-end design, etc.).

It is important that you have stakeholders who are have some background knowledge on the objects and systems in the journey to make it a more productive session.  

Establish rules

Some basic ground rules will help you create the right atmosphere and keep the session on track. In our last workshop, we set the following four rules:

  • You must speak in the first-person, even if your role is a back-end system. For example, a Sitecore system might say I'll take the personal information you gave me, and store it in my user profiles.
  • You must not talk over each other. If you object to what is said, raise your objection and come to a consensus. If it escalates into a heated discussion, then we will note it down and put it to the side for now.
  • Don't get hung up on one step.  

Running the workshop

Have a director

There needs to be someone to look at everything from an outside perspective. This makes it easier for people to empathise with one person or thing more deeply. The director should record the steps covered, and make sure none are being missed.  The director should also be responsible for explaining the rules of the session and modelling how the role-playing will work.   The director might also need to be in charge of taking notes, unless there is another observer who can do that.  

Role-play the journey

The director should ask everyone at the workshop who the first actor is to start. This typically starts with the actor (or user) saying I need to _ _ _ _ _ _‚.   Each action should trigger another action, so that each role would take turns and step in when they come into the picture. It should play out like a conversation. For example:  


After completing the journey, go back to any steps people were uncertain about, and then have a discussion about those.   Try to end with a clear conclusion, or clear actions (with clear ownership) where further investigation is required.   Also have a discussion about what you've learned. A good framework to use here is the POINT:  

Writing it up

This part will differ depending on what product or service journey you were working on. It could be an illustrated journey map, for example, or maybe even an edited video of the session. No matter what, make sure that next steps are clear, with defined roles, responsibilities and timescales.  

Summary & top tips

Our workshop ended with stakeholders walking away feeling more productive than usual, and knowing exactly what actions they had to complete (all without coming close to killing each other!)

Whilst this method worked for us, it may not work for you; everyone has a unique stakeholder situation. One thing to remember is that methods can be adapted, and role-playing can be as playful or structured as you want.  

Here are some closing tips:  

  1. Make sure you're clear about why you would want to run a role-playing workshop in the first place before you decide to do it.
  2. Always do a practice run with people you work with before you use it on stakeholders. This will help you better respond to any problems that arise.
  3. Don't force people to get up and act it out if they don't want to. Your group of stakeholders might be the sit-down and dialogue it type, which is fine. Great empathy sometimes takes baby steps!
  4. Remember that this is a conversation, even with humans playing the role front-end and back-end systems.  
  5. Embrace the unexpected and don't miss those rich micro-moments that can turn out to be opportunities.  

Read about how to run content workshops if you have any questions about when or how to run a role-playing workshop as part of a digital project, or have any experiences of your own you'd like to share, Tweet us @Computerlovers.

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