Understanding the Rose-Thorn-Bud method: the benefits of the retrospective

We run into so many different experiences during our daily lives that it can be challenging to come to terms with and learn from each individual incident. It’s only natural, as your brain is likely looking towards the most efficient path forward with each situation, leaving little time for reflection about what exactly each moment taught us about how to move forward.

Now it might seem a little abstract and interpersonal, but the concept of reflection is almost integral in both learning and in navigating your own professional career. Without key reflection habits, you won’t be able to utilize personal insights that might give you an advantage later on or at least help you manage the same problems that might come out again.

Reflection can be tricky though, and for those who aren’t used to the habit of reflecting upon one’s recent experiences, it can feel disorganized and unnecessary. This is where frameworks and methods can come in and make sense of the many rapid thoughts that likely come out during these sessions. The Rose-Thorn-Bud is an incredibly simple yet surprisingly powerful tool for making sense of the often experiential learning moments in life into straightforward and easy-to-understand categories. In this article, we will show you how retrospection and reflection help in your life as well as how the Rose-Thorn-Bud method can be used by you, with someone else, or with a larger team participating as well.

The Importance of Retrospective

First, to hammer home the concept of the Rose-Thorn-Bud method, we need to better explain why such a reflection is integral to your development in the future. One key aspect that reflection and retrospect can help with is learning. Libby Cross writes for LearningPool, a skill-learning platform, that reflection is tantamount to building critical thinking skills, improving process design, and even generating better social interactions amongst colleagues. She adds to this, “Learning-by-thinking enables learners to connect previous learning experiences together. By processing this information, learners can then better understand where certain activities have aided specific skills or helped them better understand a concept.

It’s not a workplace commodity either, with various education experts and institutions attesting to the role of reflection in pedagogy, or the theory of teaching in practice. Brock University’s Centre for Pedagogical Innovation has an entry on its website on how reflection is not just a “superficial process of introspection” but rather “an evidence-based, integrative, analytical, capacity-building process” that is incredibly useful to anyone looking to learn a new skill or talent. The center identifies three main reasons why students ought to reflect:

  •  Helps Generate Learning: As students engage in reflection, they essentially engage with themselves regarding the different boundaries of the concept itself. Through reflection, they can better get an overview of the problem, topic, or idea.
  • Deepens the Learned Concept: Reflection also allows a student or learner to better challenge their own understanding of these topics through the open invitation of contradictions and possible alternatives. Reflecting allows you to look beyond the problem and into possible areas that enrich the concepts further.
  • Produces Tangible Learning Proof: Lastly, all this is better executed when documented in some form to allow both you and anyone assessing your performance to really identify whether you understood the concept and if you generated any new insights alongside it.

Its power in professional settings gives employees much more of an awareness of their surroundings as well. Gretchen Gavett writes for Harvard Business Review (HBR) that often reflections on your work can help you identify situations in which you can do even better as an iterative process. Abby Stark adds to this in her article on LifeIntelligence, a work-life balance platform, that simple retrospection often gives workers a better understanding of the task at hand beyond the standard set of instructions given to them at the onboarding. More than just the mechanical processes, reflection also allows these same tasks to get a better sense of meaningfulness in the grand scheme of things.

All in all, the power of reflection, even if it seems like some form of benign introspection activity, retains a lot of benefits in its simple but flexible applications across different contexts.

Where the Rose-Thorn-Bud Method Came From

With all this discussion regarding reflections and retrospectives, it can still not convince those who are skeptical about the process and its usefulness in the field. But the Rose-Thorn-Bud method, which we’re looking to establish here as a simple but useful framework for reflection, was born out of the field in the first place.

Specifically, it is understood that the early concept of the Rose-Thorn-Bud method came from the Boy Scouts of America as part of their long history of learning traditions on exploratory trails across the country. The Luma Institute, a learning platform for organizations, explains the Rose-Thorn-Bud method as arising from how the “[m]embers of the Boy Scouts of America are taught to be thorough, methodical, and analytical about each situation they encounter.

It was here that their troops were taught to apply the Rose-Thorn-Bud methodology to better share with each other their various learnings in the field to allow everyone a better sense of a group understanding regarding their situation and what they might face ahead.

It’s in this exact thinking that design learning experts took to apply to a myriad of other situations, from boardroom meetings to one-on-one discussions, to better get a sense of the learnings each individual has and hopefully apply it in situations to come. After all, we all offer unique perspectives into any given situation, so leveraging this multitude of views should help organizations get a better grasp of increasingly complex market space.

The Essential Aspects of the Rose-Thorn-Bud method

The Rose-Thorn-Bud remains very flexible and straightforward in its application. Start off with a topic of the discussion you want to have, it can range from interpersonal experiences in a new role up to more measurable experiences like a brand’s year-end performance. You essentially want to have three separate spaces outlining each aspect of the framework. The rose section will illustrate the different successes and general positive experiences in regard to a given topic. The thorns then go on to mention failures and problem points in regard to the very same topic. Then the framework ends with the buds or the potential opportunities on the horizon.

If it seems a little high-level for your purposes, don’t worry. We will break down each stage below and give some helpful illustrations of how each one can be used in different scenarios.

1 - Rose: the positive part

The roses, as likely hinted by the name, focus on the positive aspects of the topic at hand. This can take the form of successes in particular tasks, wins (both big and small), tangible and intangible sources of success, and more.

This section is one of the easier ones to develop as it generally feels good to recount what went right with a particular topic of discussion. For those managing larger teams and likely producing a retrospective as part of your annual report, the Rose section will likely be populated by verifiable results such as profit margins, revenues generated, market shares captured, customer satisfaction ratings, and more.

Those looking for more interpersonal applications of the rose can look to examples of people onboarding to a new role, with roses here likely focusing on more abstract items such as the “feeling of accomplishment” regarding certain tasks and the overall satisfaction they have with work.

Despite the largely different scenarios in both cases, each one can have largely tangible and intangible elements. Annual retrospectives can include how well the team worked together throughout the year and interpersonal roses can include personal measurable milestones, such as attributable sales generated.

2 - Thorn: The negative part

Thorns are likely going to be the more difficult areas to discuss as it invites those participating to explore what didn’t exactly work according to plan or come up in a situation which turned it for the worse.

Thorns can also take the form of a current problem you’re likely facing and would need additional support. The term reflection is often mistakenly applied to situations that have already happened, but can also be applied to situations that are currently ongoing. Small reflections in the form of these thorns can help you be critical regarding difficult situations and to reflect on how you might address them.

As an example, engineers looking at their current project might likely post different thorns around their own personal difficulties in understanding complex problems in their expertise base. These thorns can be the avenue for others to provide additional input that can help unlock the problems moving forward.

Thorns, themselves, can be immensely useful in learning about what to do and what not to do moving forward. As you look towards each individual thorn in this section, you’ll want to properly identify why these things turned out the way they did and use it as a guide to avoiding running into similar problems in the future.

3 - Bud: The opportunities

In order to come full circle with this framework technique, we will be bringing the conversation back to the buds, or those areas of potential that can be really good opportunities either for yourself, your team, or even the larger organization in question.

Buds are fun to think of but require a bit of lateral thinking to get to as it concerns the areas of possibility rather than the current reality of the situation. To help move the conversation along in this area, you can look at a few questions that can inspire some thought:

  • What makes you (or your team) energized in terms of tasks?
  • What areas or tasks do you (or your team) believe need more support or guidance?
  • What is working well now but has an opportunity for improvement in the future?

These are only some of the questions you can ask yourself to better get a grasp of the possible buds in your situation. Marketers can look at buds as the possible budding trends (pun intended) in the current business landscape that they can leverage in the next campaign cycle. Those managing their careers can see these buds as possible opportunities for advancement or skill development given the right resources and support. Whatever the situation, it's these buds that can give rise to better iterations moving forward.

Example of the 3-Column Rose-Thorn-Bud Table

Rose, thorn, bud template on Klaxoon

Above is an example of a very simple 3-column table that allows you to list each idea in sequential order underneath the relevant segment. Don’t feel constrained to utilize this format as you can also take inspiration from “Kanban” boards and have each section have a corresponding idea that makes it much more engaging both visually and in the process itself. These executions can be done in person, but can also be mediated online with the proper collaborative platform.

Final Thoughts on the Rose-Thorn-Bud Method

The Rose-Thorn-Bud method is one of many possible reflection techniques that you can utilize yourself, with another colleague, or with a larger team in participation. Because of its simplicity, don’t hesitate to make the necessary changes in its structure to better suit your specific contexts. After all, we always say that each situation is different in these articles, so take these frameworks alongside other ones you might be more familiar with and see how it further enriches your experience in learning, working, and everything in between. 

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