My interview for a leading Israeli radio station.
Applying Agile methods to family life – based on my book “Agile Kids – Who’s the Boss of Me?” and the latest article In Haaretz
Agile Management System
Q: The family we talked about a moment ago consists of parents and 3 children, and the father is a high-tech worker, because from there – from the high-tech world, from management methods in high-tech, you suggest they will find their lifeline, salvation…
Look, the high-tech world has taken them from other worlds … Agile was adopted because it offers a solution at a time when there is no other choice left. It only needed something that would inspire change otherwise we would not keep with the dizzying pace of production… J The world today is advancing so quickly and this is noticeable outside the high-tech world, but especially inside it. You need to keep up with the customers’ pace and beyond that, the pace of technological change, every day there is something new, a new method, something that the audience likes and you need to adapt. Customers are no longer willing to wait. The practices that were suitable 10 years ago are no longer suitable today. So there was no choice but to find new practices that can keep up with such a dizzying pace of changes. And this is where Agile comes in. It enabled exactly that.
Q: So tell us about the Agile management system…
The Agile management system is actually a collection of practices accumulated over the years from many disciplines, mostly originating from Japan, Europe and not just from the world of project management but also a lot of it came from psychology. And in fact it came from things that were done on the ground and worked. After all, someone who isn’t familiar with the world of high-tech is also not aware of the high percentage of project failures in this field, which at times reaches up to 80%, and in practice this failure would be in terms of time, budget or quality. The technological world is changing at breakneck speed, not just for consumers, but also internally, in the customers’ requirements. To meet them we need to work in shorter production lines, faster and of higher quality. It is necessary to change all the time and to be in constant motion. In fact, to make a long story short, they went and said – let’s see what is working for us and how we get out of this situation. People gathered and formed and collected the methods that were working, so that they could produce better, faster. And they found a set of principles and also tools, some of which are project-oriented and actual practical methods of how to do it, how to manage projects, and some were purely psychological methods such as motivating individuals and teamwork, and so on… And behind this set of tiny tools there is a philosophy that believes in the person, in respect, that believe that after all these are very talented people who are asked to perform creative work. And without changing our manner of conduct with them we will not be able to produce projects on time and on budget, and certainly not in the required quality.
In Agile we actually believe in a different way of managing people, which goes beyond the mere project management system that I will come to soon. We believe in empowerment, that a worker who is on the ground is very familiar with the range of his abilities and encounters problems, and we believe that we should give him all the tools to solve them and also the space to do so. We believe in the power of the group more than that of one individual who makes decisions, in collaborative exposure to information. We believe that when working in small portions, as opposed to huge and gargantuan projects, we have more ability to control, understand and make mistakes. And when I make a small mistake it is also a small thing to fix. We believe that placing blame leads nowhere, on the contrary, it blocks the creativity of employees and for this reason we always try to find the source of the problem instead of placing blame, and we do this all the time, not just when something bad happens but all the time. We believe that the manager’s job is to steer, like a parent, to look forward and not be a secretary that has to oversee tasks or tells people what to do. After all, this is not the best way to make use of the worker’s abilities on the ground. And many other similar attitudes. And we teach the employees on the ground all these things.
In terms of project management, we have introduced tools that enable things to happen, visibility boards. An actual board with sticky notes… instead of bombastic tools. See, feel, colors, joy… because it is better… there we believe that if you see something, chances are you will also be more focused on it and it will also drive you to understand and see if anything is wrong. We believe that if we divide the work into smaller portions, define small goals (together) and ask the employee about his or her abilities instead of defining them for him it will work better. In addition, we set a time limit for all these tasks (although there are some systems that don’t use time limits) that is short enough so that we can control and monitor. And that’s what we call a Sprint. Meaning first of all we outline what needs to be done, then we will divide it into Sprints – a unit of time with a beginning and an end in which the managed team independently undertakes to perform a set of tasks. It is short enough to really stay in control, and during this period we prepare the additional time units. At the beginning of every Sprint we have a Planning meeting, where we ask and clarify our abilities, present each task, each team member responds and states their opinion about the execution, timetables and eventually we make a commitment and set off. Once a day, we stand facing the task board and synchronize our actions. Again, not the manager but the team, the team that has made a commitment and is responsible for its execution. The team is the one that will define what happens next and how to reach a successful completion of the tasks. People who are given responsibility take it, and perform better than when they are told what to do. In fact we hand over the responsibility for the task – from being the manager’s task it becomes the worker’s task. As with children, the responsibility for preparing homework is on the child, not the parent, and this is manifested in the little things, such as our demeanor, our conversational style and who tells whom what to do. Only in high-tech, if a worker is not committed to complete the task, the price we pay is high. The company can shut down.
At the end of every Sprint we examine the outcomes – present them, receive feedback, present them to everyone. In general, feedback in the business world is critical – but that’s another conversation. At the end of the period we finally have something positive, something that works – for those who are unfamiliar with high-tech, workers are always exposed to complaints, bugs, what didn’t work, why didn’t this thing happen, why wasn’t it on time, etc. This is the only chance for them to receive the positive feedback that they deserve, since it’s much easier to talk about the negative aspects. By the way, children too, why are your shoes in the living room, why haven’t you eaten, why haven’t you showered and more… Anyway, this whole Agile approach is meant to create positivity, learning rather than placing blame, continuous improvement, visibility, transparency and feedback. This is our only way to deal with today’s fast-pace market, complex tasks and building creative programs. Without people there is no creativity, and without appropriate feedback creativity dies.
At the end of a Sprint, we also look back and see what we could have done better, what to preserve and what to improve. And it is important to stress: Everything happens through doing, actual relevant doing, not some theory or discussion on a psychologist’s couch.
Q: Could a system of management used in high-tech companies be appropriate for healthy family relations? It sounds completely unreal, these two worlds are so different from each other …
I prefer to see management as family rather than family as management.
Much has been written about the parallels between managers and parents. The problem is that there is actually a tendency to adopt outdated management practices in our homes and that’s too bad. Management doesn’t mean enforcing our will on our children, and certainly this will not work with adolescents, it cannot, and it also doesn’t work with employees. Management means, first of all to respect, trust, grow, empower, let the employee express their abilities, connect them to the organization and its goals so that together we can create what the customer wants. We are merely taking some tools and a positive worldview and taking it home… here also, through doing.
A significant difference is that in high-tech, at end of the day we want to make money so we empower employees, teach them to better manage their time and the project, teach them soft skills of working in a team, providing feedback, etc. Because we believe that these things produce better results and creativity, because that is what we are concerned with. In the household it is the opposite. We will use tools such as projects, visibility boards, time management skills, the flow of production lines in timed Sprints – in order to achieve the soft skill, the empowerment, because we believe in developing our children. We believe that through empowerment they are happier and realize more of their potential. We believe that through healthy communication, just as it is with workers, we gain the ability to solve problems and allow the entire group to grow.
High-tech workers are a bit like adolescents (and in general, not only high-tech workers). They are very smart, and at work they often believe that they are the most knowledgeable (which is true), and it is necessary to be gentle with them and take small steps, with a ton of confidence and belief in their abilities, and to teach them something new rather than force it upon them. It is exactly the same with adolescents. Like a teenager, they will demand their space and to be the ones who really lead the way. Only when they see what they stand to gain they will acknowledge the system and because they are empowered they also know to improve and refine it. We see incredible ideas coming from employees, ideas that no manager would have come up with by themselves, or even more so – improvements in the process that eventually save a lot of money.
Q: Paint me a few pictures of a family that is run according to the Agile method…?
It’s very simple… Let’s take the framework of the system, its technical steps are the basis on which we fit everything else. Let’s start with the doing. Through the daily life of the family, we do not change anything, just see what needs to be done. The framework is to actually set up a task board where all of our household tasks appear, including the parents (well, obviously not all of them… people, use your discretion…). The parent leads the creation of the board, with a lot of fun (because that is very important in Agile, we always make sure to have fun, it works on adults as well as children). Once a day we meet around the task board or at dinner and talk. What I’ve completed today, what I intend to do tomorrow. We talk about tasks, but the real conversation is about us. It has to start here, at the beginning, with this real conversation. The parents have a hidden agenda – to communicate with the children. To understand, to hear … but really. Children are dying to talk to us, they like our company, the daily conversation is the place to start talking. There is a time and place that we clear for it. Just 10 minutes. But it is there and it is respected. The conversation is not for us parents, we listen and ask, not ‘attend’. Once a week the family gathers for a Retrospective. We look back and ask how we did, what to improve, what to preserve, what to start doing that we haven’t done so far. Everyone speaks. And we plan next week’s tasks. Each his own, each person who has a task plans how to execute it, rather than the parent planning for the child. The parent directs and puts boundaries. In my family we haven’t used a board in ages, it’s just an excuse. Over time tasks become more straightforward and organized (and there are techniques borrowed from Agile to help children finish their tasks, prepare homework, manage their schedules) – we’ll get to that immediately.
Talking is the most important thing.
Q: Other than talking there must be other tools…
Certainly, lots. Lots of methods and tools for continuous improvement, task management, at the end of the day every family creates its own tools … time management, the ability to define goals and complete them… it is an entire world… Today people take this system almost everywhere… People use this system for or diet or exercise or other things…
Q: An innocent question – there are many families in which the father (usually) is still not home at six thirty, seven…. what about them?
And in some families neither is the mother. So you find another time. Look, in general this is a problem, it’s not related to Agile. I personally believe that a parent has to be present. Especially during adolescence. The challenges in this age are moral and intellectual. Agile enables us to create this time frame, since all of us work, and it really is difficult to be present… so we create it… we will give it a certain structure in the form of a set of rules… but the important thing is that it happens. It’s not just being present, but being actively present. In my household I sometimes come home at four and sometimes at seven. Dinner in these days can also be at eight. It is a household with adolescents so there’s no problem. You can have the conversation not only during dinner but also afterwards. The conversation is extremely important.
Q: Could you explain a bit more… what needs to happen in these conversations, the family talks? These 10 minutes that will lead the change most of us are looking for?
First of all they should be focused on the children. Not on what we parents think or want to talk about or prove. How was your day? And what about your tasks? What helped you? What do you have planned for tomorrow? Is something holding you back? What do you need, what options do you have? And not “you left your socks in the living room again, and the light was on in your room and you didn’t put the plate in the dishwasher” – this will also come, but differently. Under “what needs to be improved”.
Q: This all sounds great on paper, but to me it doesn’t seem easy to actually do… I think it’s the type of thing that works better on the neighbor’s grass… (maybe because we don’t know how to think like tech-workers)?
Look, this is intended for a normative family that has the same problems as its neighbors do, ones that you can take to a family counselor and get the exact same advice. Parental presence, improvement by the parent, attention… Agile simply gives us a way to do it, says exactly how to… gives us a framework and a recipe. That’s it. And like in everything else, you have to be determined. Tech workers aren’t better than anyone else, everyone can and should do this. It’s a matter of determination like in every other area. That’s why I wrote the book… to give lots of tips in one place on how you can do it… It’s free so anyone can read and do J
Q: You yourself made this change… in what is your current household different compared to before you started using the Agile system?
We started before adolescence. Dinner is the place to talk. Children keep things for dinner (instead of keeping them bottled up inside). When it comes to homework or complicated tasks and I tell him, use the sticky notes, he already understands, he takes a whiteboard and divides the tasks into smaller units and takes them one at a time. And he works according to what he already knows… starts from small to large (depending on the matter at hand), dissembles the larger ones into smaller portions. He also teaches his friends when they study in a group or need to study and prepare a presentation. Look, because he’s used to presenting before his family every day, that this is a safe place and he can talk about what he did and what he will do, he finds it very easy to do so outside as well. He gains confidence to describe, to talk, to defend what he wants to do. In the weekend it’s very natural to examine what was good and what was less good and how we can improve next time.
But mine are already big, when they were smaller the house was full of sticky notes and colorful stickers, they wanted notes for everything, everything revolved around this and it created a continuous and enjoyable dialogue between us. Over time we didn’t need it anymore. But they still love the notes, to this very day.
Q: So to apply this nice method you need tremendous willpower, that maybe only tech workers have…
Willpower is an acquired skill. When I want my child to put on his seatbelt in the back seat it doesn’t matter how hard he screams, he’s wearing his seatbelt. In Agile it’s exactly like this, but freer. If I as a parent set an example that this is important for me, that I am interested and want to talk, it will work. Again, with adolescents I would perhaps introduce it through the school… after all, in my household they’re used to this from a young age, so they don’t find it unusual that everything is discussed during dinner, that placing blame is something else and that issues need to be resolved.
Q: Finally – give us a few initial, applicable ideas, we promise to try and start immediately
Start with the little ones. The bigger ones will catch on… If there aren’t any little ones then sit down and have dinner with your children every day. In the beginning without a theme. Let them talk. Ask and show interest – see, it has nothing to do with Agile. If they don’t want to, don’t force them.
Set up a task board, if the children are young, with older ones it’s problematic, share with them, make the tasks visible on the board. Once a day meet in front of the task board and ask what has been done, what has not been done and how. Create this time, be determined to make it happen regularly. They will join. Insist. You might look ridiculous because that’s the way things are with adolescents, but they already think we’re ridiculous anyway, don’t they? So at least we’re doing something with it. Again, it depends on your relationship. Put notes in your house, sticky notes. Start by writing tasks on them yourselves. See that they will catch on, because that’s just how it is… unless they’re in front of the computer all day… in which case they don’t really see anything, do they?!
I suggest to try to offer the adolescent a system for managing his or her time. To take a piece of paper and divide it into 3 columns as a start. Place all the tasks on the board. Divide them into doable parts. And start doing them one by one. Every day check on their progress and improve one small thing. I teach them to do this through their schoolwork. It works great for them.
Q: At what age (of the children) can you start?
Basically from a very small age. We have a system for the actual toddlers as well, using pictures of the things they need to do.
Q: And our children, the children of the parents who this program is intended for – won’t they fall off the chair laughing when we suggest this type of dynamic for family behavior?
They might… Adolescents… I have a few of these at home… Them I will treat as I would an employee for all intents and purposes. They are people with desires, with abilities, they have opinions and ideas and I really love working with them. I drive my 14-year-old son back from his studies every Sunday evening, with his friends in the car, and we talk, and I deliberately ‘volunteer’ to do this because talking with them is important to me. This is a group of people that has a lot to contribute, you just have to enable them to get it out. With them I would use actual management techniques. They find it very difficult to juggle all the things they need to do and they don’t always know how to do this (similarly to many adults who have the same problem… however they might interpret it in the wrong way). There I would start by emphasizing task management, the board, tasks in small portions, daily monitoring (as in a project) and teach them how to improve, step by step, and to learn how to conduct themselves around all they have to do. I would also use this opportunity to teach them how to make decisions, to not be afraid to make mistakes, to receive feedback and constantly strive to improve. It works like a charm with adolescents as it does with adults. You may be surprised, adults have barriers that adolescents don’t… an adolescent is easier when you give him some wiggle room. Of course boundaries are important, but they are with adults as well. In the family level, I would use this system to plan a trip, or a bar mitzvah event or something similar. You can also start with the little ones… and give the adolescent the role of facilitator… the one who empowers… and so on and so forth.
I believe that with an adolescent as well, if we treat him or her seriously we will eventually get where we want to be and that is why we talk with him or her on a completely different level than with a younger child and of course about other issues. With an adolescent I would let him or her lead, choose his own tasks (I would do this with a younger child as well) but again… I’m not an expert on adolescents… you are J
Q: Do we give them the tasks or is it their initiative?
Their initiative. As parents we place boundaries. But, for example, we won’t force them to do something that they’re not ready to do. Then you’ll ask … but … what if he only takes small tasks, or unchallenging, or unimportant? Here too things need to be done gradually. First of all, we will work with their strengths, take tasks that he feels comfortable with and then move on to others. In general, the child is asked to reflect his day, the things that are important to them… you’ll be surprised at the entire world you discover beyond tooth brushing, bathing, homework and the computer… he starts to take tasks such as “what will he build in Minecraft tomorrow” and invites us to see them (like an end-of-Sprint demo in high-tech)… He turns us into partners in his life, but he is in charge.