Bruce Feiler: Agile programming — for your family

Bruce Feiler: Agile programming — for your family

Translator: Joseph Geni
Reviewer: Morton Bast So here’s the good news about families. The last 50 years have seen a revolution in what it means to be a family. We have blended families, adopted families, we have nuclear families living in separate houses and divorced families living in the same house. But through it all, the family has grown stronger. Eight in 10 say the family they have today is as strong or stronger than the family they grew up in. Now, here’s the bad news. Nearly everyone is completely overwhelmed by the chaos of family life. Every parent I know, myself included, feels like we’re constantly playing defense. Just when our kids stop teething, they start having tantrums. Just when they stop needing our help taking a bath, they need our help dealing with cyberstalking or bullying. And here’s the worst news of all. Our children sense we’re out of control. Ellen Galinsky of the Families and Work Institute asked 1,000 children, “If you were granted one wish about your parents, what would it be?” The parents predicted the kids would say, spending more time with them. They were wrong. The kids’ number one wish? That their parents be less tired and less stressed. So how can we change this dynamic? Are there concrete things we can do to reduce stress, draw our family closer, and generally prepare our children to enter the world? I spent the last few years trying to answer that question, traveling around, meeting families, talking to scholars, experts ranging from elite peace negotiators to Warren Buffett’s bankers to the Green Berets. I was trying to figure out, what do happy families do right and what can I learn from them to make my family happier? I want to tell you about one family that I met, and why I think they offer clues. At 7 p.m. on a Sunday in Hidden Springs, Idaho, where the six members of the Starr family are sitting down to the highlight of their week: the family meeting. The Starrs are a regular American family with their share of regular American family problems. David is a software engineer. Eleanor takes care of their four children, ages 10 to 15. One of those kids tutors math on the far side of town. One has lacrosse on the near side of town. One has Asperger syndrome. One has ADHD. “We were living in complete chaos,” Eleanor said. What the Starrs did next, though, was surprising. Instead of turning to friends or relatives, they looked to David’s workplace. They turned to a cutting-edge program called agile development that was just spreading from manufacturers in Japan to startups in Silicon Valley. In agile, workers are organized into small groups and do things in very short spans of time. So instead of having executives issue grand proclamations, the team in effect manages itself. You have constant feedback. You have daily update sessions. You have weekly reviews. You’re constantly changing. David said when they brought this system into their home, the family meetings in particular increased communication, decreased stress, and made everybody happier to be part of the family team. When my wife and I adopted these family meetings and other techniques into the lives of our then-five-year-old twin daughters, it was the biggest single change we made since our daughters were born. And these meetings had this effect while taking under 20 minutes. So what is Agile, and why can it help with something that seems so different, like families? In 1983, Jeff Sutherland was a technologist at a financial firm in New England. He was very frustrated with how software got designed. Companies followed the waterfall method, right, in which executives issued orders that slowly trickled down to programmers below, and no one had ever consulted the programmers. Eighty-three percent of projects failed. They were too bloated or too out of date by the time they were done. Sutherland wanted to create a system where ideas didn’t just percolate down but could percolate up from the bottom and be adjusted in real time. He read 30 years of Harvard Business Review before stumbling upon an article in 1986 called “The New New Product Development Game.” It said that the pace of business was quickening — and by the way, this was in 1986 — and the most successful companies were flexible. It highlighted Toyota and Canon and likened their adaptable, tight-knit teams to rugby scrums. As Sutherland told me, we got to that article, and said, “That’s it.” In Sutherland’s system, companies don’t use large, massive projects that take two years. They do things in small chunks. Nothing takes longer than two weeks. So instead of saying, “You guys go off into that bunker and come back with a cell phone or a social network,” you say, “You go off and come up with one element, then bring it back. Let’s talk about it. Let’s adapt.” You succeed or fail quickly. Today, agile is used in a hundred countries, and it’s sweeping into management suites. Inevitably, people began taking some of these techniques and applying it to their families. You had blogs pop up, and some manuals were written. Even the Sutherlands told me that they had an Agile Thanksgiving, where you had one group of people working on the food, one setting the table, and one greeting visitors at the door. Sutherland said it was the best Thanksgiving ever. So let’s take one problem that families face, crazy mornings, and talk about how agile can help. A key plank is accountability, so teams use information radiators, these large boards in which everybody is accountable. So the Starrs, in adapting this to their home, created a morning checklist in which each child is expected to tick off chores. So on the morning I visited, Eleanor came downstairs, poured herself a cup of coffee, sat in a reclining chair, and she sat there, kind of amiably talking to each of her children as one after the other they came downstairs, checked the list, made themselves breakfast, checked the list again, put the dishes in the dishwasher, rechecked the list, fed the pets or whatever chores they had, checked the list once more, gathered their belongings, and made their way to the bus. It was one of the most astonishing family dynamics I have ever seen. And when I strenuously objected this would never work in our house, our kids needed way too much monitoring, Eleanor looked at me. “That’s what I thought,” she said. “I told David, ‘keep your work out of my kitchen.’ But I was wrong.” So I turned to David: “So why does it work?” He said, “You can’t underestimate the power of doing this.” And he made a checkmark. He said, “In the workplace, adults love it. With kids, it’s heaven.” The week we introduced a morning checklist into our house, it cut parental screaming in half. (Laughter) But the real change didn’t come until we had these family meetings. So following the agile model, we ask three questions: What worked well in our family this week, what didn’t work well, and what will we agree to work on in the week ahead? Everyone throws out suggestions and then we pick two to focus on. And suddenly the most amazing things started coming out of our daughters’ mouths. What worked well this week? Getting over our fear of riding bikes. Making our beds. What didn’t work well? Our math sheets, or greeting visitors at the door. Like a lot of parents, our kids are something like Bermuda Triangles. Like, thoughts and ideas go in, but none ever comes out, I mean at least not that are revealing. This gave us access suddenly to their innermost thoughts. But the most surprising part was when we turned to, what are we going to work on in the week ahead? You know, the key idea of agile is that teams essentially manage themselves, and it works in software and it turns out that it works with kids. Our kids love this process. So they would come up with all these ideas. You know, greet five visitors at the door this week, get an extra 10 minutes of reading before bed. Kick someone, lose desserts for a month. It turns out, by the way, our girls are little Stalins. We constantly have to kind of dial them back. Now look, naturally there’s a gap between their kind of conduct in these meetings and their behavior the rest of the week, but the truth is it didn’t really bother us. It felt like we were kind of laying these underground cables that wouldn’t light up their world for many years to come. Three years later — our girls are almost eight now — We’re still holding these meetings. My wife counts them among her most treasured moments as a mom. So what did we learn? The word “agile” entered the lexicon in 2001 when Jeff Sutherland and a group of designers met in Utah and wrote a 12-point Agile Manifesto. I think the time is right for an Agile Family Manifesto. I’ve taken some ideas from the Starrs and from many other families I met. I’m proposing three planks. Plank number one: Adapt all the time. When I became a parent, I figured, you know what? We’ll set a few rules and we’ll stick to them. That assumes, as parents, we can anticipate every problem that’s going to arise. We can’t. What’s great about the agile system is you build in a system of change so that you can react to what’s happening to you in real time. It’s like they say in the Internet world: if you’re doing the same thing today you were doing six months ago, you’re doing the wrong thing. Parents can learn a lot from that. But to me, “adapt all the time” means something deeper, too. We have to break parents out of this straitjacket that the only ideas we can try at home are ones that come from shrinks or self-help gurus or other family experts. The truth is, their ideas are stale, whereas in all these other worlds there are these new ideas to make groups and teams work effectively. Let’s just take a few examples. Let’s take the biggest issue of all: family dinner. Everybody knows that having family dinner with your children is good for the kids. But for so many of us, it doesn’t work in our lives. I met a celebrity chef in New Orleans who said, “No problem, I’ll just time-shift family dinner. I’m not home, can’t make family dinner? We’ll have family breakfast. We’ll meet for a bedtime snack. We’ll make Sunday meals more important.” And the truth is, recent research backs him up. It turns out there’s only 10 minutes of productive time in any family meal. The rest of it’s taken up with “take your elbows off the table” and “pass the ketchup.” You can take that 10 minutes and move it to any part of the day and have the same benefit. So time-shift family dinner. That’s adaptability. An environmental psychologist told me, “If you’re sitting in a hard chair on a rigid surface, you’ll be more rigid. If you’re sitting on a cushioned chair, you’ll be more open.” She told me, “When you’re discipling your children, sit in an upright chair with a cushioned surface. The conversation will go better.” My wife and I actually moved where we sit for difficult conversations because I was sitting above in the power position. So move where you sit. That’s adaptability. The point is there are all these new ideas out there. We’ve got to hook them up with parents. So plank number one: Adapt all the time. Be flexible, be open-minded, let the best ideas win. Plank number two: Empower your children. Our instinct as parents is to order our kids around. It’s easier, and frankly, we’re usually right. There’s a reason that few systems have been more waterfall over time than the family. But the single biggest lesson we learned is to reverse the waterfall as much as possible. Enlist the children in their own upbringing. Just yesterday, we were having our family meeting, and we had voted to work on overreacting. So we said, “Okay, give us a reward and give us a punishment. Okay?” So one of my daughters threw out, you get five minutes of overreacting time all week. So we kind of liked that. But then her sister started working the system. She said, “Do I get one five-minute overreaction or can I get 10 30-second overreactions?” I loved that. Spend the time however you want. Now give us a punishment. Okay. If we get 15 minutes of overreaction time, that’s the limit. Every minute above that, we have to do one pushup. So you see, this is working. Now look, this system isn’t lax. There’s plenty of parental authority going on. But we’re giving them practice becoming independent, which of course is our ultimate goal. Just as I was leaving to come here tonight, one of my daughters started screaming. The other one said, “Overreaction! Overreaction!” and started counting, and within 10 seconds it had ended. To me that is a certified agile miracle. (Laughter) (Applause) And by the way, research backs this up too. Children who plan their own goals, set weekly schedules, evaluate their own work build up their frontal cortex and take more control over their lives. The point is, we have to let our children succeed on their own terms, and yes, on occasion, fail on their own terms. I was talking to Warren Buffett’s banker, and he was chiding me for not letting my children make mistakes with their allowance. And I said, “But what if they drive into a ditch?” He said, “It’s much better to drive into a ditch with a $6 allowance than a $60,000-a-year salary or a $6 million inheritance.” So the bottom line is, empower your children. Plank number three: Tell your story. Adaptability is fine, but we also need bedrock. Jim Collins, the author of “Good To Great,” told me that successful human organizations of any kind have two things in common: they preserve the core, they stimulate progress. So agile is great for stimulating progress, but I kept hearing time and again, you need to preserve the core. So how do you do that? Collins coached us on doing something that businesses do, which is define your mission and identify your core values. So he led us through the process of creating a family mission statement. We did the family equivalent of a corporate retreat. We had a pajama party. I made popcorn. Actually, I burned one, so I made two. My wife bought a flip chart. And we had this great conversation, like, what’s important to us? What values do we most uphold? And we ended up with 10 statements. We are travelers, not tourists. We don’t like dilemmas. We like solutions. Again, research shows that parents should spend less time worrying about what they do wrong and more time focusing on what they do right, worry less about the bad times and build up the good times. This family mission statement is a great way to identify what it is that you do right. A few weeks later, we got a call from the school. One of our daughters had gotten into a spat. And suddenly we were worried, like, do we have a mean girl on our hands? And we didn’t really know what to do, so we called her into my office. The family mission statement was on the wall, and my wife said, “So, anything up there seem to apply?” And she kind of looked down the list, and she said, “Bring people together?” Suddenly we had a way into the conversation. Another great way to tell your story is to tell your children where they came from. Researchers at Emory gave children a simple “what do you know” test. Do you know where your grandparents were born? Do you know where your parents went to high school? Do you know anybody in your family who had a difficult situation, an illness, and they overcame it? The children who scored highest on this “do you know” scale had the highest self-esteem and a greater sense they could control their lives. The “do you know” test was the single biggest predictor of emotional health and happiness. As the author of the study told me, children who have a sense of — they’re part of a larger narrative have greater self-confidence. So my final plank is, tell your story. Spend time retelling the story of your family’s positive moments and how you overcame the negative ones. If you give children this happy narrative, you give them the tools to make themselves happier. I was a teenager when I first read “Anna Karenina” and its famous opening sentence, “All happy families are alike. Each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” When I first read that, I thought, “That sentence is inane. Of course all happy families aren’t alike.” But as I began working on this project, I began changing my mind. Recent scholarship has allowed us, for the first time, to identify the building blocks that successful families have. I’ve mentioned just three here today: Adapt all the time, empower the children, tell your story. Is it possible, all these years later, to say Tolstoy was right? The answer, I believe, is yes. When Leo Tolstoy was five years old, his brother Nikolay came to him and said he had engraved the secret to universal happiness on a little green stick, which he had hidden in a ravine on the family’s estate in Russia. If the stick were ever found, all humankind would be happy. Tolstoy became consumed with that stick, but he never found it. In fact, he asked to be buried in that ravine where he thought it was hidden. He still lies there today, covered in a layer of green grass. That story perfectly captures for me the final lesson that I learned: Happiness is not something we find, it’s something we make. Almost anybody who’s looked at well-run organizations has come to pretty much the same conclusion. Greatness is not a matter of circumstance. It’s a matter of choice. You don’t need some grand plan. You don’t need a waterfall. You just need to take small steps, accumulate small wins, keep reaching for that green stick. In the end, this may be the greatest lesson of all. What’s the secret to a happy family? Try. (Applause)

94 thoughts to “Bruce Feiler: Agile programming — for your family”

  1. "greatness is not a matter of circumstance, its a matter of choice", yeah.. cause we all are born with the same opportunities!

  2. Looks like it's time to turn away from my own parental philosophy of creating happy productive people by tyrannically ruling every aspect of their lives.
    "Oh a new philosophy on family life? What's the big secret?"
    "We'll ask our kids what they think and that'll make them happier to participate in family life"

  3. He keeps talking but he's not saying anything… he wants us to be able to easily recursively improve our family cohesion, why doesn't he say that without the 17 minutes of padding?

  4. Much more needs to change. Job and status obsessed docile-mill drones cannot become best parents they can be by employing business techniques. Most of them are anyway grown up kids (in a bad sense) themselves… beyond redemption.

  5. tedtalksdirector, you need to update the title and description. Agile is not a software programming language. It is a methodology – that is being applied to software development. So, in this context, it is a software development lifecycle methodology.

  6. I don't think that it only applies to americans. It's a modell, for families who struggle to get organized.

    But I agree, that the kind of income-situation many US Families face at the moment, definitely doesn't improve family Cohesion. Having a model to organize yourself doesn't even change a lot about that.

  7. look at the growth-rate of the income-gap in america in the last 10 years. It's ridiculous. A medium income salary could afford a house, 2 kids and 2 cars in the 80s and 90s, but you'd struggle to afford a flat, one kid and one car with two salaries today.

    But in a way it's self inflicted. Government raised taxes for work and lowered it for financial gain and huge incomes, so the superrich got richer while the poor ones were motivated to take up credits, that again make the rich even richer

  8. If you don't know what 'agile development' is, perhaps you should study it? He's not giving a lecture in the details of the method, he's telling us that the technique is useful for family life.

    Also, Tolstoy story was about a brother who spent his whole life trying to improve himself and his surroundings, first as a child consumed with trying to find the magic stick, then later as an adult who came to see the profound insight into happiness the childish story provided.

  9. Practically all corporate software development is constructed using an adaption of an Agile technique. The bit with Tolstoy was supposed to tell you about how it's possible to give your life its own meaning and happiness.

  10. Profound. I have taken notes for the day I have a family. Either way some of the principles are applicable in my current circumstance and business. Thank you for this once again, i'll keep trying.

  11. It seems as though "Agile development" is the programing equivalent to an even older japanese philosophy used in manufacturing known as Kaizen.

  12. I am more skeptical about this agile system than some others. Thing is families and kids have successfully produced functioning adults for centuries and no particular tradition particularly created bad societies. The speaker is trying to convince the audience that they "need " this system for their kids, but not why. Evidence that it works for all families is not given either.

  13. I don't think there should for all families. I think there is no one-size fits all solution to fixing family problem or making a good family better.

  14. Nice empowerment story for families. I cannot ignore the feeling that the basis of this story is recent, interesting, data results, of which we do not know what the results will be in 10-15 years. High adaptibility is the often the search in the short-term, but ultimately could not be an adequate result in the longterm.

  15. Uh… "waterfall" doesn't mean what you're saying it means… but yes, the system that you're talking about is way better than executives micromanaging…

  16. Thats the most shitty talk i heard since a long time. That would be a really dull artificial life of have checklist for everything. These large mouths should look at the core of the problem i.e why are people getting busier. This is not normal, pea brain!

  17. I believe Kanban is a a visualization method of Kaizen. A lot of agile methods have visual task boards the resemble Kanban boards. Agile techniques are typically more structured and prescribed than Kaizen, but there is definitely a relationship.

  18. Are you dense, or what?

    Business != Family. Quite the flippin opposite. Any parents who try to incorporate a business productivity technique to improve their family life needs to check their head.

  19. Neither. As a father of two, I get how family life can be very stressing and time consuming. But thinking that some corporate suit knows the best way to manage a FAMILY and keep them happy together is sadly mistaking.

  20. Since you claim not to be trolling, and a father, I'll spare a moment to enlighten you. Corporations have nothing do with it, this is a solution development strategy, most commonly used by programmers. Last I checked, programming wasn't exclusive to for-profit corporations. The whole point is to evolve gradually and often, as there are fewer growing pains and you can react quickly if things don't go as planned.

  21. Hey man, do yourself a favor and go get your nuts clipped. The world doesn't need any more "solution development strategies" for parents. It's human nature. If you can't detach from corporate mentality and strategy when it comes to procreation, it's probably best you stick to fapping to porn.

  22. This guy is giving business advice as well as family advice, how can some of you not see this? I guess you weren't on the check list….

  23. family is a 2 member job. 1 member to produce viable income and 1 member to take care of house and family. When both or only parent(s) work a 30-40+ work week there is no energy left to do the 30-40+ hour work week that taking care of house and family needs to run and function properly. When house and family are not taken care of we see things like unhealthy sanitary and behavioral habits children have to grow up and take on responsibilities they are not ready for and family cohesion break down.

  24. It's the art of persuasive essay writing. You start out with a Logos, fact based appeal (statistics on what kids want), and then to an Ethos, credibility based appeal (where he works, and his success), and finally to the emotional appeal, the Pathos. The reason for this is because the audience he is speaking to may or not take what he says to heart unless he has convinced them to open their minds. Here on the internet, we have selected this video because it already appealed to us. But not there.

  25. doing away with all the technical aspects of this method and how to implement it i think the point here is treat your kids as human beings not like your home appliances that you scream at when they dont work like you want them too…you wouldnt beat up or scream at your work colleagues why should you do that with your children

  26. He was describing an experiment and case studies. He was telling us why and how agile programming helps families, not just that "it is".

  27. You don't have the intellectual capacity to produce results from education. Hence why your family most likely has all those problems…. He produced with variables possibly one million ways to increase agility and happiness.

  28. In complete agreement, this in its own right is half the problem with Modern society – a need to worship methods and practices because they are being justified by some new study, but as far as human culture is concerned were always known. The best way to solve a problem is the practical way, do what works. You just have to care enough to keep trying.

  29. First we had Colin Powell telling us that kids love military-like structure and now we're told that they love living in a corporation. Feiler gives an interesting point – kids say they want parents being less stressed and tired – and then pretty much says that it's the kids' fault. And tells us how to teach children to get out of parents' way. Do what you should do without me having to tell you and there will be less screaming, and I'll be less stressed. Everyone's happy!

  30. Love it! I have been using Agile with my 3 kids for homework time. Wanted my kids to work efficiently and learn a workflow process along with task/time management. My kids were struggling at school, and AGILE/KANBAN helped them!
    I also made an app for them to help them with applying those methods at home, and make the methods very simple and fun for kids. The app is available for free, sharing it with all parents if interested, the app is called : KanPlan, available in AppStore !

  31. Awesome vid! I've been enjoying lots of TED Family podcasts. Love the idea of empowering the kids and working/talking about issues together. We've asked our kids about what consequences they would receive.. and yes, the kids usually come up with harder punishments than us parents would! lol.

  32. are there any anthropologists out there? this talk along with many other TED talks on human relationships is starting to make me feel that Anthro is an overly underrated discipline

  33. This reminds me of a Time Magazine article I read just today about the change in the way cancer research is now being conducted. It's amazing when you make these connections about the world 🙂

  34. I have been a software engineer for 30 years. Agile doesn't work for everyone. Not everyone performs well with the team approach. Not every family member likes to be "warm and fuzzy". The goal of a family is not to make a profit or avoid problems. Love cannot exist under such structures – maybe slavery – but not love.

  35. The simple concept proves true.. a happy worker is a product and loyal worker.  The problem is getting management to buy into these policies that promote the flexibility to enhance worker satisfaction.

  36. just had first family agile meeting wasn't expecting great results but it went really well. have a whiteboard full of things to achieve this week.

  37. Love your concept Bruce! You tested and tried it and it proves effective. The best part of your speech from 11:25 !
    Will give it a go in our household.

  38. As a follow-up, Harvard Business Review has a great article on this topic as a whole if anyone is interested –

  39. We have been giving this a go in our family. The kids seem to love the control they have in the family dynamic and it has created less stress for me as a Mom. We held on to what was already working in our family and we added this great framework as well. I am learning so much more. Thank you so much for sharing!

  40. I love the way this talk sparks discussions about Agile in parenting. You can find a full review on my Blog (in German):

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