“We acquire the strength we have overcome.”

— Ralph Waldo Emerson

There is perhaps no better demonstration of what it means to be human than to feel pain.

This feeling, as much as we tend to avoid it, actually may be a key component to being human that will separate us from artificial intelligence.

Even though research is ongoing to teach robots to feel pain, its being looked at as purely a utility of avoiding harm, more in the primal way humans have utilized pain since the dawn of time. Burn your hand on that fire? Ouch, don’t touch the fire again.

Here’s the thing — we humans are uniquely suited to use pain as a tool to improve ourselves and those around us, and not simply risk avoidance.

In fact, I’m going to argue we need to “turn towards the pain” far more — to embrace the thorns as they appear.

Why? It’s fairly simple. Because our sources of pain hold our greatest opportunities.

Opportunities to learn, to grow, and to better understand ourselves. I’m not saying we should run around sticking our hands into fires all the time, its more having the courage to embrace what might be a thorn and the pain that comes with it to reveal an opportunity forward.

The cave you fear to enter holds the treasure you seek.

— Joseph Campbell

Fortunately, human-centered and by extension thinking gives us a tool for how to embrace those thorns, stand up to our fears and turn them into opportunities.

Enter Rose, Thorn, Bud

I have the fortune of teaching the good people at Allstate Insurance to be more human-centered in what they do.

A foundational method in the system we teach is called “Rose, Thorn, Bud” — a deceptively simple way to drive honest, structured feedback.

Here’s how it works: when analyzing any source of information, we break it into three categories, much of it using gardening metaphors fully present throughout human-centered design:

Roses (Pink): what’s working well; what’s blooming

Thorns (Blue): what’s not working well; causing pain

Buds (Green): opportunities to create roses, with some cultivation

While this sounds simple enough, what I’ve found Rose, Thorn, Bud does is drive, as Dr. Brene Brown likes to say, “courageous conversations”, or as the Boy Scouts put it, honest recollections. In fact, the Boy Scouts invented this method to help drive more honesty within their troops.

It gives room for people and teams to capture and celebrate wins with roses, but, perhaps more importantly, a safe space to talk about challenges, and a shared vocabulary we can leverage to drive honest feedback.

Frankly put, it makes it ok for us to talk about what’s not working as much as what’s working. This simple point can be challenging to share within a team dynamic, as it might end up hurting feelings, driving defensiveness, or worse.

Similarly to the “I like, I wish” feedback structure utilized by IDEO and the D.School at Stanford, pairing thorns with roses and buds makes thorns hurt less on the surface and be more embraced, rather than immediately dismissed. It’s that pairing with other types of feedback that begins to change the perception.

Driving Divergent Feedback

By then gathering roses, thorns and buds into clusters, we also encourage our teams to live an examined work-life. Any product, design element, or even team ceremony can be evaluated using these methods, enabling us be more reflective and mindful in our work and inter-team dynamics.

How? It provides a critical underlying structure to examine ourselves and our work in a meaningful way, understanding and embracing that any source, whether it be a product, a relationship or a component of a design, can have different dimensions of feedback.

It visibly demonstrates to our teams and ourselves that no single theme within a source of feedback is all good or all bad, but many shades of gray in-between.

Each color fills a key role: roses provide validations and opportunity to learn why something is working, and buds offer clear directions forward to make improvements. That leaves our thorns.

Thorns Can Equal Growth, If You Act Quickly

That leaves thorns as our greatest source of growth opportunity: to look with open minds and clear eyes (can’t lose) at what is happening, and step back, analyze, and develop insights.

This next step of determining insights, then actionable statements, lets us act quickly, leaving the potential for a bitter aftertaste far behind. I often recommend moving to these next steps right away, which help immediately turn the perception of a thorn into an actionable insight we can make a real impact with.

It takes the stigma out of something or somethings that might not be going quite right, and changes the way we talk about these issues at a fundamental level.

I’m Ok, We’re Ok

Dr. Thomas Harris, 1967

In 1967, Dr. Thomas Harris developed an approach to self analysis called “I’m OK, You’re OK”, utilizing transactional analysis, a form of psychoanalytic theory.

It essentially determined what “ego state” a person was in to help understand behaviors and motivations, helping millions to better examine themselves and their social interactions by first evaluating then providing paths to shift ego states to healthier forms.

Human-centered methods like rose, thorn, bud are a form of this self analysis, providing a similar framework to diagnose and provide actionable paths forward to both ourselves and our teams.

It makes our designs and design decisions more human-centered by accepting our truths together and turning them into opportunities to improve. Our teams begin to live work lives, and perhaps home lives too.

The End Result: Team Health, Innovation, Iteration and Smarter Bets

Once we begin utilizing rose, thorn, bud and other human-centered methods, it encourages us to innovate more by taking more risks, because even if we’re wrong initially, we can quickly make that discovery and act on it.

The health of our team improves because we feel more comfortable providing any type of feedback. By being able to call out thorns not for the sake of being vindictive, but for finding insights and making improvements.

This empowers wild ideas and non-traditional thinking to enter our mix, and be evaluated like any other idea. No bad ideas emerge, and even ideas that end up not being viable always have a usable insight within them.

From this we become able to innovate through “smart bets” — risks that we are able to fully accept because our team has evaluated them in multiple dimensions and reached a shared understanding.

Getting Started

This all starts with the ability to embrace the thorns in your world. The beauty of rose, thorn, bud and the other human-centered methods is they’re not just for work, but any other aspect of your life.

Not quite comfortable bringing this to a team yet? Try it with your family to help analyze their days. Or to evaluate a new purchase, its especially relevant for major purchases like houses.

However if you feel like you and your teams don’t have a healthy relationship with thorns, bring these methods to them as a constructive way to move forward.

You’ll find by “turning towards the pain”, you and your team will find the path to your greatest growth.

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