Kicking off an Experiment in Agile Family Management

I became aware of the idea of taking the “Agile” approach to software development outside of a technical environment and into the family when I heard a talk Bruce Feiler gave at TEDSalon in New York City in 2013. Feiler identified some of the pain I experience as a parent. I feel like I am constantly on the defensive. I struggle to keep up with daily emergent issues. I don’t get to focus a lot of my time or energy on long- to medium-term goals for my family. Lack of communication between family members often leads to both parents and kids feeling out of control. Sharing information is too laborious and time-consuming. Performance of all members isn’t adequately tracked for admonishment or reward.

Although I appreciated Bruce Feiler’s diagnosis of some of the difficulties of parenting in a modern, complex, over-busy age, I don’t think he has any practical experience with Agile software development or design, and it shows in his understanding of what this style of management offers the family.

At Atomic, Agile has always been a way to deliver value predictably and reliably. It’s about making progress on big projects. To me, it sounds like Feiler’s approach to parenting is more about molding his children into the people he would like them to be, rather than actually making progress on concrete familial goals.

More recently, I came across an article an Agile practitioner named David Starr wrote a few years ago. Starr embarked on a more than three-year experiment with his wife to manage their family in an adapted Agile style. The Starrs found a nice way to balance routine tasks using daily “self-directed morning lists” and weekly swim lanes with rotating tasks that their children organize amongst themselves.

The Starrs’ rhythm was punctuated by a weekly family meeting in which they would plan the coming week, give out allowances, and evaluate the past week. They also held daily standup-style meetings in the evenings to handle emergent issues and to nominate one another for “points.” Their point system was an interesting way of incentivizing their kids to behave and work as a team. If others didn’t nominate a child for points, that child did not get compensated for that day. They also awarded unsolicited good behavior with an incentive model called “cotchas” (short for “caught you doing something good”) that could be accumulated and exchanged for rewards.

Again, there are things about the Starrs’ approach I appreciate. Their self-directed morning list is something I can’t wait to design and try out. I think their weekly and daily rhythms are also good, and I look forward to testing them in my own family, which includes an eight-year-old son and ten-year-old daughter.

However, I also have several issues with their implementation of Agile. I find the lack of focus on medium- and long-term goals puzzling. I wonder if Starr’s focus on maintaining chores and behavior comes from his background in Agile at large corporations, where the majority of software development work involves maintaining existing projects.

At Atomic, we specialize in helping clients develop products. Clients turn to us for the creation of new custom software. This specialization definitely affects how I want to approach my experiment in Agile family management.

A photo of Jonah Bailey and his family who engaged in the Agile Family Management expiriment

Over the next six months, I’d like to continue reporting on how our family experiment is progressing. As I report back, I’ll be detailing how we find different practices functioning in the family environment, as well as whether or not we are meeting our specific goals.

My goals for this experiment are as follows:

  • Enhance communication among all family members. Kids and parents should be empowered to change their management style and to set their own goals for the whole family.
  • Involve children more in maintenance chores in a regular, organized, and compensatory way.
  • Improve morning routines to take pressure off parents and empower kids to be self-directing.
  • Focus on medium- and long-term family goals. If we don’t see forward progress, I would consider the experiment less than successful.
  • Teach my children the importance of providing value in exchange for value, rather than expecting to be provided for.

My methodology for this experiment will be:

  • Implement Starr’s self-directed morning list.
  • Start a daily family standup meeting. The Starrs met at night. My assumption is that morning will be best for us.
  • Hold a weekly meeting on Saturday mornings punctuated by an Atomic-style retrospective, a planning session to organize ourselves for the coming week, and a time to schedule something fun for that day to celebrate what we got done over the past week.
  • Kids will have an iterative model of shared tasks, as will adults. We will share weekly tasks among ourselves, as “chores” would be shared among a software development team. These chores will be assumed to be the price of forming part of the family. Members won’t be compensated for the chores with points, as the chores don’t provide forward progress for the family; they are purely maintenance that enable the family to make forward progress.
  • Behavior anomalies will be treated as “bugs.” They need to be fixed, but fixing them is the responsibility of the one exhibiting the behavior. Similarly to how we treat bugs in Agile software development, correcting emergent poor behavior will not be compensated, as good behavior is expected. Correcting poor behavior takes time and energy and should detract from velocity and result in the team receiving less points. However, long-term issues that span several weeks will be compensated with points.
  • We will organize our long- and medium-term goals into epics. These epics will be organized into a physical Kanban Chart with columns of “Icebox,” “Backlog,” “Current,” and “Done.” We will use a Fibonacci scale to estimate points together based on the effort required to accomplish individual tasks. Prioritization of these tasks will be done on a weekly basis by the entire family at our weekly meeting.
  • If family members work together on a task providing progress for the family, they divide points equally. Points may be turned in for cash allowances.

I’m excited to see what sort of adventures await my family as we embark on this experiment. I’ll check back in a month or so and let you know what sort of progress we’ve made. In the interim, have you tried a similar experiment? If so, did you document it somewhere? We would love to learn from what you’ve done.

  • Andreas says:

    Would be interesting, to first sit down and discuss what is considered a value for each family member. They might be quite different across generations. If mid-term and long-term goals are only be proposed by the parents or childrens individually, they might go in very different directions. It would be cool to dig up developments everybody wishes for, like learning something about a certain topic, or creating something together, aside from the chores and must-have developments for school etc.

  • Jonah Bailey Jonah Bailey says:

    Hey Andreas – Thanks for your comments.

    Long and mid-term goals will definitely be proposed by everyone and we will do our best to prioritize work in a way that takes everyone’s desires into account.

    However, I do think it will be good for my kids to being to become acquianted with the concept of “value” and to start to evaluate what they want to do with their available resources not exclusively according to their own desires, but also by the value those activities have for the whole community, e.g. the family unit.

    I’ll report back on the differences between parents and kids goals. Should be interesting!


  • Jason says:

    Did you ever follow up on this? Curious to hear how it went. I’m assuming “no news is bad news”…. :)

  • Jose Manuel De Urquidi says:

    Hello, did you follow up? I can´t seem to find links to 6 month report :S

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