Boost 1: Rose Thorn Bud

ops-boost-2Ops Boosts: Free (or mostly free) ways to supercharge your nonprofit’s operations

How often do you walk out of a brainstorming session and say to yourself, well, now we’ve got a long list of things, but, ugh, what now? Typical brainstorming goes like this. “Ok, everyone, we have to double our outreach, now let’s shout out 100 possible ways to do it. Go!”  I’m not a huge fan of brainstorming because, while it may generate a list of interesting ideas, it’s actually not very good at getting groups to solve problems together. Worse, when you’ve got a power imbalance in the room, you invariably end up hearing mostly from the ones in the room with more authority (positional authority, perceived authority or otherwise).

There’s a group exercise, called Rose Thorn Bud, that I like a lot. We learned this at a training with the LUMA Institute, and it’s amazingly simple. Got pink, blue and green post-it notes? Good, you’re ready for Rose Thorn Bud. “But”, you exclaim, “I only have the yellow ones!” It’s cool, it’s cool. You can write R, T or B in the upper left hand corner, just do it big. What is Rose Thorn Bud? It’s basically one of the workhorses of human-centered design. It takes about 15-20 minutes. You start with a question like, “How can we have really productive operations team meetings?” Everyone takes five minutes to write down their thoughts on post-it notes, with one idea per post-it note.

  • Rose (Pink) – Something that’s currently going really well.
  • Thorn (Blue) – A thing that is personally causing you pain.
  • Bud (Green) – A thing that isn’t happening all the time yet, but it holds promise.

Once everybody is done with their sticky notes, you all stand up and put them in groupings on the wall. It’s helpful to have a facilitator and to put up just one at a time so everyone can hear all the responses. The facilitator’s job is to get them into natural groupings. This person may start with one post-it note and then ask who else has something related to that idea. Once you’re done with that grouping, you move on to the next. In the case of the question above (which my team did recently) “how can we have really productive operations team meetings,” we had instant categories like “changes to meeting structure”, “staying informed” and “intra-team learning.”

rose-budRose Thorn Bud has a lot of advantages over traditional brainstorming. First of all, you can move ideas around and regroup them easily. If you have a grouping with a lot of pink notes, you can also easily see what’s making people happy. Perhaps most importantly, those “blue zones” are what are causing your group the most pain. Also, by asking everyone to spend a few minutes writing down thoughts first, it helps reduce the power dynamic that happens when the people with the most perceived power in the room voice their ideas. Once you’ve got your ideas on the wall, the ideas the group comes up with tend to be more focused and better aimed at building on existing opportunities. Best of all, now you can get to work solving the things that are driving everybody on the team crazy.

The main problem with Rose Thorn Bud comes with overuse. When I’ve leaned on it a little too frequently, it loses a bit of its luster and can start to feel a little bit like a chore. If you use it selectively, it’ll tend to retain its freshness.

For more on Rose Thorn Bud, check out:


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