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
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD); one tutors mathematics on the
near side of town; one practices tennis on the far side. "We
were living in complete chaos," Eleanor said.
Like many parents,
the Starrs were trapped between the smooth-running
household they aspired to have and the exhausting, ear-splitting 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 anymore'."
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 is 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 children 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
children during "work time". But as close as the two worlds have grown, they
have rarely exchanged ideas. Parents hoping to improve their families have been
stuck with stale techniques from
psychiatrists, self-help gurus and other "family experts". Meanwhile, in
workplaces across America, breakthrough ideas have emerged to make teams run
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.
Surveys show that both parents and children list stress as their No. 1
concern. A chief source of that stress is change. Just as children stop
teething, they start throwing tantrums; just as they stop needing us to give
them a bath, they need our help dealing with online bullying. 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
overworked 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. At home, the Starrs,
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 children 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