Monday, July 29, 2013

Your New Favorite Analytic Methodology: Structured Role Playing

If you use only one analytic methodology this week, Structured Role Playing (SRP) should be it. 

SRP as a way to improve analysis boasts supportive literature from the fields of law, military, pedagogy and politics. It is also frequently compared - and compared favorably - to other approaches such as Devil's Advocacy, expert opinion judgments and game theory within the relevant academic literature (check out the list of references at the bottom for more info). 

Note: The 2011 study is the "role-thinking" study which,
although yielding better than chance results, was not as effective
as SRP.

Basically, SRP is putting yourself in another person's shoes and looking at situations from different vantage points. 

Sounds pretty straightforward. 

But it's more than just thinking through what another person might be experiencing (a process cleverly named "role-thinking"by Kesten Green and Scott Armstrong in 2011 which has shown to be less effective than SRP). 

It's sitting down with a group of analysts, assigning roles of various actors and playing out situations as if you were those people, acting with the cultural, political and personal motivations of all parties involved. It is spontaneous. And, if done properly, can be extremely revealing. 

In order to implement SRP correctly, there are certain criteria that have to be met.

The two main criteria for effective SRP are that it has to be as realistic as possible and that the scenarios be objective (not decisively biased towards one outcome or another). 

Beyond those structural tenets, other recommendations for effective SRP include:
  • Assign roles before presenting the situation (according to Linda Babcock, this makes a big difference).
  • Ensure a high level of involvement by participants (also called "active role playing" as opposed to "passive role playing" or "role thinking"). This involves personal and spontaneous interaction between participants.
  • Maintain a low degree of response specificity. It is better to let participants improvise responses than to have them select responses from a predetermined list, for example, in a multiple choice format. 
As an aside, it is relevant to mention that the 2011 role-thinking study, which yielded the lowest of the SRP results listed in the chart above, violated the last two of these implementation recommendations, possibly leading to its poor comparative performance.

As is the case with all methodologies, however, there are critics of the technique. 

The main criticism of SRP is its relative ineffectiveness when not correctly implemented. As mentioned above, "role-thinking" does not work very well at all. This point, however, is easily addressed:  Follow the simple guidelines to ensure correct implementation of SRP.

The second, less investigated criticism of SRP is overconfidence resulting from having employed the technique in the first place. This phenomenon, if replicated, is generally true for any analytic methodology.

Ultimately, SRP is an analytic technique that allows analysts the opportunity to interpret situations from distinct vantage points. It's collaborative, it's spontaneous and effective. 

Extended reading list:


JWells said...

This is just like the simulations I use in my teaching. Students are assigned individual leadership roles early on in the semester (after I use a combination of objective and subjective metrics for determining who should have more/important roles and who should work well with whom). They spend three or four class meetings negotiating whatever the conflict/crisis is, such as the Arab-Israeli conflict or the Six Party Talks. Students walk away not only with a substantially better understanding of the conflict itself but also of basic, abstract concepts and theories discussed throughout the semester.

Anonymous said...

Great methodology! How does this compare to red teaming? What are the benefits of using this over red teaming and vice versa?

Melonie Richey said...

Red teaming (penetration testing) is more focused on attack and response. It shares the same ad hoc components of SRP that make it a viable approach, but I think SRP, ultimately, is more comprehensive than red teaming.

Red teaming gets people thinking about innovative ways someone might attack, and tests an entity's ability to respond adequately. SRP does not so much 'test' as it 'explores.' When done correctly, it reveals every possible facet and every possible vantage point involved in a given situation.

I, at least, see red teaming and SRP as structurally very similar, with red teaming having a slightly more narrow focus than SRP (which can, in some cases, be a good thing).