At 7 p.m. on a Sunday in Hidden Springs, Idaho, the six members of the Starr family were sitting down to the highlight of their week: the family meeting. The Starrs are a typical American family, with their share of everyday family issues. David is a software engineer; his wife, Eleanor, takes care of their four children, ages 10 to 15. One of the children has Asperger syndrome, another ADHD; one tutors math on the near side of town; one practices lacrosse on the far side. “We were living in complete chaos,” Eleanor said.
The modern workplace has developed lots of tools for promoting cooperation and teamwork, says Bruce Feiler, and we can use them at home too. He discusses his new book, “The Secrets of Happy Families,” with WSJ Weekend Review editor Gary Rosen.
Like many parents, the Starrs were trapped between the smooth-running household they aspired to have and the exhausting, earsplitting one they actually lived in. “I was trying the whole ‘love them and everything will work out’ philosophy,” she said, “but it wasn’t working. ‘For the love of God,’ I finally said, ‘I can’t take this any more.’ ”
What the Starrs did next was surprising. Instead of consulting relatives or friends, they looked to David’s workplace. They turned to a cutting-edge program called agile development that has rapidly spread from manufacturers in Japan to startups in Silicon Valley. It’s a system of group dynamics in which workers are organized into small teams, hold daily progress sessions and weekly reviews.
As David explained, “Having weekly family meetings increased communication, improved productivity, lowered stress and made everyone much happier to be part of the family team.”
When my wife and I adopted the agile blueprint in our own home, weekly family meetings with our then-5-year-old twin daughters quickly became the centerpiece around which we organized our family. The meetings transformed our relationships with our kids—and each other. And they took up less than 20 minutes a week.
The past few years have seen a rapid erosion of the wall that once divided work and family. New technologies allow busy employees to check in with one another during “family time” and allow busy parents to interact with their kids during “work time.” But as close as the two worlds have grown, they’ve rarely exchanged ideas. Parents hoping to improve their families have been stuck with stale techniques from shrinks, self-help gurus and other “family experts.” Meanwhile, in workplaces across America, breakthrough ideas have emerged to make teams run more smoothly.
A new generation of parents is now taking solutions from the workplace and transferring them home. From accountability checklists to family branding sessions, from time-shifting meals to more efficient conflict resolution, families are finally reaping the benefits of decades of groundbreaking research into group dynamics. The result is a bold new blueprint for happy families.
Want to know more about running your family like a business? Pose your questions in the comments, or tweet them using #happy families. Bruce Feiler will provide answers on Monday.
Surveys show that both parents and children list stress as their No. 1 concern. A chief source of that stress is change. Just as kids stop teething, they start throwing tantrums; just as they stop needing us to give them a bath, they need our help dealing with online hazing. No wonder psychologist Salvador Minuchin said that the most important characteristic of families is being “rapidly adaptable.” So has anyone figured out how?
In 1983, Jeff Sutherland was a technologist in New England when he began noticing how dysfunctional software development was. Companies followed the “waterfall model,” in which executives issued ambitious orders that their harried programmers struggled to meet. Most projects failed. Mr. Sutherland set out to design a more agile system, in which ideas would not just flow down from the top but also percolate up from the bottom. Today, agile development is used in 100 countries and is transforming management suites.
Inevitably, fans of agile started applying the techniques to their families. “I began to see a lot of people using agile at home, especially with their children,” Mr. Sutherland told me. Blogs popped up; manuals were published.
A central plank is accountability. Teams use “information radiators”—large, public boards on which people mark their progress. The Starrs, for instance, created a morning checklist of chores, which each child is responsible for ticking off. On the morning I visited, Eleanor drank coffee and inquired about the day, while the kids fixed lunch, loaded the dishwasher and fed the dog. When I protested that my own girls would never be so compliant, she said, “That’s what I thought. I told David, ‘Leave your work out of my kitchen.’ But I was wrong.”
The week that my wife and I introduced our own morning checklist, we cut parental screaming in half. But the real breakthrough was the family meeting. Following the lead of the Stars and others, we ask three questions, all adapted from agile: 1) What went well in our family this week? 2) What didn’t go well? 3) What will we agree to work on this week? Everyone offers answers, then we vote on two problem areas to focus on.
First, empower the children. The key to the meetings is to let the kids pick their own rewards and punishments. Ours girls turn out to be little Stalins, so we often have to dial them back. Significant brain research reinforces this strategy. Children who plan their own time, set weekly goals and evaluate their own work become more internally driven and have greater self-control.
Second, parents aren’t invincible. Our instinct as parents is to build ourselves up, but abundant research shows that this type of top-down leadership is not the best model. Effective teams aren’t dominated by a single leader; all members contribute. We even let the kids criticize us.
Finally, build in flexibility. Parents often create a few overarching rules and stick to them. This assumes we can anticipate every problem. We can’t. The agile family philosophy embraces the ever-changing nature of families today and builds in a system to adapt to each new phase.
But if agile is good at making families more adaptable, what about the flip side: teaching children core values? Here again, a simple idea from the business world offers parents a clear path.
David Kidder is a serial entrepreneur, an author and the father of three boys. “If I’ve learned anything by starting four companies,” he told me, “it’s that young companies typically fail because you have a charismatic leader with a bunch of beliefs, but those beliefs don’t translate to the rest of their company.”
Mr. Kidder created a company playbook, with everything from the purpose of the organization to how to run meetings. “Why not create a similar playbook for my family?” he wondered. The Kidder belief board has a one-sentence manifesto. “The purpose of our lives is to contribute our unique, God-given gifts to have an extraordinarily positive impact on the lives of others and the world.” It then lists a dozen core values, from faith to knowledge.
Jim Collins, the author of “Good to Great,” says that great organizations “preserve the core and stimulate progress.” The same applies to families, he told me. While you need to keep introducing new ideas, you also need to identify the bedrock principles you believe in. One way to do that, he said, is to do what other organizations do: create a mission statement.
Mr. Collins coached my family through creating a mission statement of our own. In effect, we used contemporary branding techniques to identify what is most important to us. We started with the familial equivalent of a corporate retreat, a pajama party with our daughters, during which we voted on a list of values. Next we answered questions about what we liked most about our family. Finally we settled on a list of 10 core affirmations. (“We are travelers not tourists,” “We don’t like dilemmas; we like solutions.”)
What are the benefits of such a statement? A central finding of recent research is that parents should spend less time worrying about what they do wrong and more time focusing on what they do right. The family mission statement is a clear way to articulate what your family does right. It also creates a touchstone. When one of our daughters got into a spat with a classmate, we asked her which of our core values seemed to apply. “We bring people together?” she said. Suddenly we had a way into the conversation.
I grew up in a family business. Every Saturday morning, I drove with my grandfather to a one-story office building where I learned to type, file and take payments. But while those skills have proven valuable to me, I realized that I wasn’t passing them on to my kids.
Studies show that parents do a lame job of talking to their kids about money, but that doesn’t mean we’re not imparting our values. If kids see their parents worrying about money or being materialistic, they develop similar feelings. If they see their parents being responsible, children learn those habits as well.
A new crop of entrepreneurial parents is trying to revolutionize how families handle money. Websites like Tykoon and FamZoo aim to bring 21st-century tools to the 19th-century invention of allowance. They offer pots for saving, spending and giving away, along with artificially high interest rates.
Bill Dwight, a former Oracle ORCL +0.43% executive and the founder of FamZoo, said that the goal is to promote conversations. “Financial literacy is not, ‘Do you know how a stock works?’ ” he told me. “It’s about understanding the concept of constraints. I’ve advised startups over the years, and one reason they’re so innovative is they’re constrained.”
Family financial adviser Byron Trott agrees. He is the managing partner of BDT Capital Partners, which counsels many wealthy families. Warren Buffett called him “the only banker I trust.” Mr. Trott told me that the country’s top business minds often fail at the simplest tasks with their children. His advice:
1) Show them the money. Families depend too much on osmosis, he said. “I told one of the richest women in America recently that she had to talk openly with her children. She didn’t want to burden them with the truth, but burdening them with ignorance is really much worse.”
2) Take off the training wheels. Mr. Trott chided me for not allowing my children to make mistakes with their money. “But what if they drive into the ditch?” I said. “It’s better to bike into the ditch with a $6 allowance,” he said, “than a $60,000 salary or a $6 million inheritance.”
3) Put them to work. Though there is a lot of vagueness about kids and money, the research is clear that part-time jobs are great for kids. “The most successful adults I know were all involved in business at a young age,” Mr. Trott said. “Warren thinks I’m successful because I had a lawn-mowing business, a clothing store. If you really want your daughters to understand money, have them open a lemonade stand.”
All families have conflict. The ones who handle it smarter are more likely to succeed. Conflict resolution didn’t exist as a field when Dr. Spock reigned, but a generation of scholars has introduced new techniques to resolve showdowns, from nuclear-arms pacts to general strikes. These techniques also turn out to help when deciding who gets to wear the fuzzy socks this week.
William Ury, co-founder of Harvard’s Program on Negotiation and co-author of “Getting to Yes,” told me that since families are no longer top-down, new rules have to be brokered all the time. “Ours is the first generation where continuous negotiation is the norm,” he said.
Josh Weiss, a protégé of Mr. Ury, uses a simplified version of the Harvard blueprint for resolving conflict with his three daughters. When fights erupt, he coaches his daughters to step away, calm down and then return with alternative solutions.
“I believe these strategies may be better suited for a family than a workplace,” Mr. Weiss told me. While in the workplace, “you can avoid conflict,” he said, “at home, you can’t. You’ll end up getting divorced or becoming estranged from your kids.”
Other problem-solving techniques honed in companies can also help families, especially extended families. We adopted a few in our family to address questions like whether my mom should buy long-term health insurance and where to hold our family reunion. Some counterintuitive tips:
First, have as many people in the discussion as possible. The conventional wisdom is wrong: Too few cooks spoil the broth. Abundant research has shown that groups, especially if they include nonexperts, are better at making decisions than individuals.
Second, vote first, talk later. As the psychologist Daniel Kahneman points out in “Thinking Fast and Slow,” you’ll reach a smarter conclusion if everyone expresses their views at the outset, before anyone has spoken. Otherwise, those who speak first will have too much influence.
Finally, have two women present. An executive at Google GOOG -0.22% tipped me off to a 2010 study from researchers at Carnegie Mellon and MIT that showed that groups with a higher proportion of females make more effective decision. Studies of corporate boards and federal judges concur. Groups with more women are more sensitive to others and reach compromise more quickly.
A key finding of positive psychology is that happiness depends in large measure on relationships. Our families are our primary relationships, yet we spend almost no time trying to improve them. As Eleanor Starr told me in Idaho, “You have your job, you work on that. Your have your garden, your hobbies, you work on those. Your family requires just as much work, if not more.”
Today, we have more knowledge than ever before to help make that work easier, much of it from America’s leading organizations. The task for parents is to find time to implement it. As Harvard psychologist Tal Ben-Shahar wrote in his book “Happier”: “There is one easy step to unhappiness—doing nothing.” The opposite also holds: The easiest path to happiness is to do something. In the end, this may be the most enduring lesson of all. What’s the secret to a happy family?