THE AGILE FAMILY MANIFESTO
A Twenty-First-Century Plan to Reduce Chaos and Increase Happiness
The tension builds up all through the week. This kid refuses to make her bed. That one won't put down the iPhone. "Wasn't it your time to take out the trash?" "Hey, I told you, stop taking my gum!" "Mommmmmmm!"
By Sunday evening, the family is ready for relief. At just after 7:00 p.m., the sun was setting on the town of Hidden Springs, Idaho, population 2,280, just north of Boise. Two horses were running along a serpentine ridge. Some kids were finishing a pickup baseball game in Dry Creek Valley. But inside a neo-traditional, three-story, caramel-colored house, the six members of the Starr family were sitting down to the most important business of their week: their weekly family meeting.
The Starrs are a typical American family with their share of typical American family issues. David, a balding, roly-poly man with a mustache and goatee, is a software engineer. He's part of the new breed of deeply involved dads who's constantly tinkering with how his family runs. He also has Asperger's syndrome, making it difficult for him to read other people's emotions. He and his wife, Eleanor, are an impressive couple, because she is a woman of almost pure emotion, a flame-haired earth mother eager to spread love and fresh-baked corn bread to the neighbors. A few years after their wedding, David took an emotional assessment test and scored 8 out of 100; Eleanor scored 98. "How do we get along?" they wondered. On top of this combustibility, they quickly added four children in five years— Mason (now fifteen), Cutter (thirteen), Isabelle (eleven), and Bowman (ten). One had Asperger's syndrome, another had ADHD; one was laid-back, another had low self-esteem; one was a star math student who tutored on this side of town; another was a great lacrosse player who had practice on that side of town.
"We were living in complete chaos," Eleanor said.
Like many parents, the Starrs were trapped in that endless tension between the sunny, smooth-running household they aspired to have and the exhausting, earsplitting one they actually lived in. That gap is invariably widest in the hour after the kids get up in the morning, and the hour before they go to bed — the twin war zones of modern family life.
"When you're living in a house where six people are trying to brush their teeth at the same time and everyone is fighting, nobody is happy," Eleanor said. "I was trying the whole 'love them and everything will work out' philosophy, but it wasn't working. 'For the love God,' I finally said, 'I can't take this anymore.' "
What convinced her to make a change was the day David asked each of their kids to describe their mom. Their answer: "She yells a lot."
What the Starrs did next, though, was surprising. Instead of turning to their parents or friends, or trying to find advice in books or on television, they looked to David's workplace. They turned to a cutting-edge program called "agile development" that was rapidly spreading from automobile manufacturers in Japan to software designers in Silicon Valley. Agile development is a system of group dynamics in which workers are organized into small teams, each team huddles briefly every morning, and the team convenes for a longer gathering at week's end to critique how it's functioning. In the workplace, these gatherings are called "review and retrospective"; in the home, the Starrs called them "family meetings."
As David wrote in an influential 2009 white paper "Agile Practices for Families," having weekly family meetings increased communication, improved productivity, lowered stress, and made everyone much happier to "be part of the family team."
When Linda and I adopted the agile blueprint with our daughters, weekly family meetings quickly became the single most impactful idea we introduced into our lives since the birth of our children. They became the centerpiece around which we organized our family. And they transformed our relationships with our kids — and each other —i n ways we never could have imagined.
And the meetings did all this while lasting under twenty minutes.
"THE BEST THANKSGIVING WE EVER HAD"
The institution of the family has undergone dramatic changes in recent decades. From the decline of marriage to the rise of divorce, from the surge of women into the workplace to the novelty of men being more involved in raising children, nearly every aspect of domestic life has been transformed.
Yet through all this, the family has prevailed and has even grown in importance. A 2010 Pew study found that three-quarters of adults said their family was the most important element of their lives; the same number said they were "very satisfied" with their family life, and eight in ten said the family they have today is as close or closer than the one they grew up in.
That's the good news. Now, here's the bad news: Almost everyone feels completely overwhelmed by the pace and pressures of daily life, and that exhaustion is exacting an enormous toll on family well-being. Survey after survey shows that parents and children both list stress as their number one concern. This includes stress inside as well as outside the home. And if parents feel harried, it trickles down to their children. Studies have shown that parental stress weakens children's brains, depletes their immune systems, and increases their risk of obesity, mental illness, diabetes, allergies, even tooth decay. And kids know it, too. In a survey of a thousand families, Ellen Galinsky, the head of the Families and Work Institute and the author of Mind in the Making, asked children, "If you were granted one wish about your parents, what would it be?" Most parents predicted their kids would say spending more time with them. They were wrong. The kids' number one wish was that their parents were less tired and less stressed.
How do we solve that problem, at least inside the home? Part of the challenge has to do with families constantly undergoing change. My favorite line about parenting is from my friend Justin, who has four children. "Everything is a phase," he says, "even the good parts." Just when kids start sleeping, they stop napping; just when they start walking, they begin throwing tantrums; just when they get used to soccer, they add piano lessons; just when they start putting themselves to bed, they begin having homework and needing their parents' help again; just when they get the hang of taking tests, along comes texting, dating, and online hazing. No wonder the great Harvard family theorist Salvador Minuchin said the most important characteristic of families is being "rapidly adaptable." So has anyone out there figured out how to reduce stress and improve adaptability? Yes — in fact, an entire field has been devoted to this issue.
In the early 1980s, Jeff Sutherland, a former fighter pilot in Vietnam, was chief technologist at a large financial firm in New England when he began noticing how dysfunctional software development was. Companies followed the "waterfall model," in which executives issued ambitious orders from above and expected them to flow downward to the programmers below. Eighty-three percent of projects came in late, over budget, or failed entirely. "I'm looking at this and thinking, 'This is worse than flying over North Vietnam.'" Jeff told me one afternoon at his home in Boston.
"There only half the people got shot down!"
Jeff was determined to design a new system, in which ideas would not only flow down from the top but also percolate up from the bottom. Around 1990, he read thirty years of articles in Harvard Business Review before stumbling across one from 1986 called "The New New Product Development Game." The authors, Hirotaka Takeuchi and Ikujiro Nonaka, said the pace of business was quickening and argued that successful organizations were built around speed and flexibility. The paper highlighted Toyota and Canon and likened their tight-knit teams to rugby scrums. "We hit that paper and said, 'That's it!'" Sutherland said. Jeff is credited with applying the word scrum to business. Later scrum fell under the umbrella term "agile development." Today, agile (the word is used as a collective) is standard practice in a hundred countries, and two-thirds of all software is developed using its philosophy. Odds are you used something today, from your cell phone to your search engine, that was built using agile practices. In time, leading firms like GE and Facebook began using them in their executive suites, too.
In many ways, agile is part of the larger trend in society toward decentralizing power. The business guru Tom Peters said "agile organizations win" because they're not bound by fixed rules. They have the freedom to create new rules. A similar evolution has been happening in families for decades, as power has shifted from the exclusive domain of fathers to include mothers and, increasingly, children. Inevitably, fans of agile began to ask whether families could benefit from its practices.
"I began to see a lot of people using agile at home, especially with their children," Jeff told me. Jeff's own children were grown at the time, but he and his wife, Arlene, started using agile to help manage their weekends. They took me into their kitchen and showed me a giant flowchart hanging on the wall. The chart was divided into three columns: stuff to do, things in progress, things done. In the left-hand column, stuff to do, they placed a series of Post-it notes — "animals," "grocery shopping," "Skype with Veronica." When either person begins working on an item, they move it from the first column to the second column; when they finish, they move the note to the third column.
Agile terminology describes this type of flowchart as an "information radiator." Having large, highly visible displays lets everyone on the team track everyone else's progress. "If you have something public like this in your home," Jeff said, "I guarantee you'll get twice as much done. Guarantee."
Their favorite example was their first agile Thanksgiving. "We got everybody together and made a list of what needed to be done," Arlene said. "Food needed to be bought, dishes needed to be prepared, the table needed to be set. Then we created a small team for each item."
"We had this hospitality team led by a nine-year-old," Jeff said. "Whenever the doorbell rang, he would grab people and run to the door. 'Hi! We're so happy you're here. Let us take your coats!' No one has ever felt so welcomed to our house. Everyone agreed it was the best Thanksgiving we ever had."
But of course it didn't go off without a glitch. The team assigned to set the table couldn't agree on how to arrange the place cards. One of the daughters-in-law prefers to sit alongside her spouse, while the Sutherlands prefer to split up the couples. The committee couldn't reach consensus, so they punted, producing a bottle-neck at the table.
"This is where agile is particularly effective," Jeff said. "The next day, at our review meeting, we discussed what happened. First we named the problem. The team doesn't agree on seating. Then we proposed solutions for the next gathering. We can seat couples together, split them up, or mix and match. Then we built agreement, which was to switch off at alternate family functions."
So what lessons did they take away?
"Jeff and I each had difficult upbringings," Arlene said. "Our primary goal as parents was not to set up the same barriers for our children that our parents set up for us."
"That's where agile comes in," Jeff added. "People think it's natural to live in a world in where everyone is dysfunctional. It's not. It's normal for people to be satisfied. All you have to do is remove the barriers that are making you unhappy and you'll be a lot happier. That's what this system does."
In effect, what agile accomplishes is to accept that disorder and order live alongside each other. By acknowledging things will go wrong, then introducing a system to address those wrongs, you increase the odds that the system — in this case the family — can work right.
WHAT ARE YOU FORGETTING?
A similar goal motivated Eleanor and David Starr to make their Idaho home a happier place.
The first problem they attacked was the bedlam in the mornings. David, who had used an information radiator at work, suggested they use one at home. The family sat down and created a morning checklist. The document listed what every kid needed to accomplish before school. They tacked the note on the kitchen wall. Their first list looked like this:
SELF-DIRECTED MORNING CHECKLIST
1. Take vitamins or medicine
2. Eat breakfast
3. Shower or wash face and neck
4. Take care of your hair
5. Do morning chores
6. Brush your teeth (two minutes)
7. Backpack, shoes, and socks
What are you having for lunch?
What are you taking to school today?
What are you forgetting?
For the first few weeks, nothing really happened. The kids wandered around in something of a daze, asking what they were supposed to be doing and generally complaining. "And every time they would start milling about," Eleanor told me, "I simply said, 'Check the list.' After a while, I became like a broken record. 'You need to check the list.'" Gradually the kids began gravitating to it without having to be told. "I would say it took about two weeks," Eleanor said. "We had to make a few modifications. The little one couldn't read, so we made some symbols for him. But eventually, it clicked." Boy did it. When I showed up in the Starrs' kitchen at 6:00 a.m. that Monday, five years after this system had been implemented, I was amazed by what I saw. Eleanor came downstairs, made herself a cup of coffee, and sat down in a reclining chair. She remained there for the next ninety minutes as first her two oldest children came downstairs, checked the list, made themselves breakfast, checked the list again, made themselves lunch, checked the list, emptied and reloaded the dishwasher, rechecked the list, fed the pets, checked the list one final time, then gathered their belongings and made their way to the bus stop.
Excerpted from The Secrets of Happy Families by Bruce Feiler. Copyright © 2013 by Bruce Feiler. Excerpted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers.
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