Improving Families (Lessons from Software Development)

August 26, 2013

Successful Family

By Amy Hackworth. Image by Justin Hackworth.

If you’re a software developer (any software developers out there?), you’re probably familiar with the philosophy of “agile”. I’m no expert, but I was introduced to the idea by Bruce Feiler’s book Secrets of Happy Families, when he reports on his visit to the Starrs, a family that applies the workflow philosophy to their family.

As I understand it, agile in the workplace takes decision-making and organization from executive management and puts both in the hands of the team doing the actual programming. It utilizes day-to-day personal and team accountability and sets small, incremental goals to move projects forward. Agile’s been incredibly successful in the business world, dramatically improving project completion rates and reducing workplace mistakes.

As I’m turning my attention toward establishing successful routines with our boys at the beginning of a new school year, I’ve been thinking about the Starr’s system. You can read about Feiler’s visit to the Starr family here, as well as in his book. And I recommend reading David and Eleanor’s own pdf paper detailing their family’s experience here.

I’m especially attracted to two elements of the Starr’s routine. The first is the self-directed checklists they’ve established for their kids. No more repeated reminders about grabbing the lunchbox, brushing teeth or remembering your backpack. Kids consult the daily checklist, check something off when it’s completed (feels so good!) and then move on to the next item. This seems like an extremely simple and extremely effective way to make mornings flow more smoothly.

The second aspect to their approach that I’m drawn to is their weekly family meeting. Everyone gathers on Sunday nights and answers three reflective questions:

1.     What went well this week?

2.     What things should be improved next week?

3.     What will we commit to changing this week?

Everyone has a chance to weigh in, and just like agile shifts power from management to the workforce, a certain amount of control and “say” shifts to all members of the family. The Starrs report, “Discussing common dysfunctions, like arguments or raising one’s voice, together as a family has genuine impact on individual behavior.”

The Starrs write, “While increased productivity is a valued outcome of this process, the real value has been in the increased communication between family members. Setting aside time to talk about how we function as a family has been instrumental in improving behaviors and satisfaction with being part of a family team.”

Have you implemented checklists as part of your family’s daily life? And have you had success with family meetings? What other victories in the realm of family routines have you scored?

P.S. — Bruce Feiler also reports on fascinating research regarding child resiliency and knowing family stories. I wrote about that topic here

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{ 25 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Martha August 26, 2013 at 12:33 pm

Amy, I always love your contributions here! I have a good friend whose organization is enviable. At a really young age (I think 2) she makes them a binder full of check lists, morning routines, chores, meal time routines, exercise, homework, etc. Each checklist is slid into a page protector and a dry erase marker is used to check things off. Their little family runs like a clock. It’s amazing to see. I have been working on implementing such things around here, the effects are astounding.


2 Amy Hackworth August 26, 2013 at 4:49 pm

Wow! So impressive. I love having super organized friends who inspire me. I often have to remind myself that I have *other* gifts, but that I can keep trying on that organization front. :) Thanks, Martha!


3 Nora Ballantyne August 26, 2013 at 1:11 pm

Amy! Thanks for this post–so timely given the “new year” w/school starting. Sam just started school today, and we’re excited for the new routine. I just put this book on hold at my local library and can’t wait to give it a read. We’re still itching for a Hackworth/Weekes family picnic, btw…maybe on some gorgeous fall day up the canyon?


4 Amy Hackworth August 26, 2013 at 4:50 pm

Nora, of course we’d love to see you! Soon! Good luck to you and Sam as school starts!!


5 Shannon { A Mom's Year } August 26, 2013 at 1:21 pm

Oh, Amy, when I first saw this, I thought, “Great. Another family filled with agreeable people who love charts and checklists and complying with organizational systems.” (We’re short on those types around here.) But then I read that the Starrs created their system out of desperation and they have a kid with Asperger’s, too, so I’ve decided to give them a chance and read more. I’ll let you know if it helps!


6 David Starr August 26, 2013 at 2:04 pm

I hope it does help.


7 Amy Hackworth August 26, 2013 at 4:52 pm

Shannon, definitely let me know if it helps! I would love to hear and be inspired by your successes. I agree that it’s helpful to hear the Starrs are a regular family with regular challenges (and some pretty cool parents, it seems).


8 Kirsten August 26, 2013 at 1:52 pm

Its funny, my sister in law and I founded our website, because we just felt overwhelmed with our home lives (separately) and couldn’t believe that we had all of these tools to manage life at work, and nothing similar to manage our homes (which truthfully should be a mix of running a business and the chaos of life – we think). Its why we invented our mini-social network for families – just because we felt like people should have the ability to coordinate with their spouses, and to teach their kids how to coordinate with family schedules as they grew up, and also to have a nice safe place to share photos and conversations with immediate family (and extended family/friends should you choose to connect with them as well).

I think that everyone comes to find their own system that works well. The trick for us has been that so many people just “cope” with what they have been using for so long – that they feel they don’t have the time to try something new. I hope that articles like this, and people’s increasing reliance on technology helps them realize that there are more and more tools out there that are focused on helping the family out.

I don’t want to spam on here – but if you want to check us out ( – we’re free (completely) and have free apps and we are HUGE fans of Design Mom. :) thanks!


9 Amy Hackworth August 26, 2013 at 4:54 pm

Kirsten, I’ve spoken with friends about this same idea. Why does all of the home life stuff seem so overwhelming and why do I (more often that I’d like to admit) feel like such a novice at it? Very, very cool that you’ve created a solution! I’m looking forward to checking it out.


10 kirsten August 26, 2013 at 7:41 pm

I think its the same premise that lands women on What Not To Wear – LOL. We give too much, including picking up the slack when it comes to organizing and managing day to day life.

Most homes (not all – but we would likely all degree most) are powered by the mother, and so we quilt together what we can to make things work, and usually that means not teaching or forcing everyone to pull a little more weight.

Maybe if I market Megan and I as the Clinton and Stacey of coordinating your family’s schedule we’ll have tons of users AND our own show….of course then I’ll have to start dressing much better…..ahhh the irony! lol.


11 Grace @ sense and simplicity August 26, 2013 at 1:54 pm

Such a creative idea. We did do morning checklists with our kiddos, but they were a memorized 5 jobs they had to do rather than posted. It is interesting reading about this idea when we are about to become empty nesters in one week (sniff, sniff). I still can see the value in having weekly meetings with just my husband and myself, but I wished I had read about it years ago.


12 Hanna ( August 26, 2013 at 3:51 pm

Hi Amy! Are you a software developer? So am I :) I was recently thinking in the opposite direction – how educational philosophies could inspire management at work. I’m interested in Montessori philosophy and one day I realised why I (and generally most of software developers) like my work – because it fulfils one of foundations of work with Montessori materials.
Montessori materials are designed to be self correcting, i.e. child should not need any supervisor who says whether he is doing his work correctly. It should be obvious for child just from materials themselves. I think good example of self-correcting materials are puzzles – they just won’t match if you try to put the wrong piece in wrong place. And so is developers’ work – when I finish my piece of code I see it works (or not) – I don’t need anyone (my boss) to come and say “Well done” or “I don’t like it”. Code just works or not. Like in Montessori preschool / school :)
Another motivation to work is ability to select tasks by myself (we work with “scrum”, one of “agile” technics) – just like in Montessori preschool again.
These were the most obvious similarities I found, I guess there is much more in Montessori and other educational philosophies which could be inspiration for management technics.


13 Amy Hackworth August 26, 2013 at 4:57 pm

Really interesting, Hanna. I am not a software developer, and am only barely familiar with the ideas of agile and scrum. I’m fascinated, though, and looking forward to seeing more applications to home workflow and work workflow. I like your connections to Montessori–thanks!


14 Mary-- The Yellow Door Paperie August 26, 2013 at 4:03 pm

I read this book this summer and we’ve been using the family meeting/questions. I’d love to say we’ve mastered the morning routine but that has not been in place yet!

But with the family meeting/questions, we spend a bit of time (20 minutes or less) discussing these three questions. Actually, to some degree we use these principles at work (for a Fortune500 company). But, I find that they work better at a much more granular level with my 6 and 7 year old.

We also have used the weekly challenges in a way that they are all kid chosen, kid driven challenges. They have thought up great ones for our family to practice.

Are we not talking nice to each other? Let’s have a code word so that we remember to practice it more. Not having enough family time? Let’s mark off some days this week to be home and be intentional about being together.

The idea of taking a challenge and charting a simple solution, plus talking through our week– what worked, what didn’t work– levels the playing field and makes us all partners in our own family. We call it ‘practicing happiness.’

And it’s worked. We are about 6-8 weeks into this process and we’re reaping the benefits of a more connected household. I think it’s a great starting point!


15 Amy Hackworth August 26, 2013 at 4:58 pm

So cool to hear this is working for you, Mary. Congratulations! I love to hear you’re “reaping the benefits of a more connected household.” That’s some great motivation.


16 This girl loves to talk August 26, 2013 at 4:23 pm

sometimes I wonder if it is about giving up control (not that I think of myself as a controlling person at all) after I complained about having to remind people to get ready for school a friend said – leave them. Go sit in your room and read a book. Let them be late. Let them go to the school office and get a late slip. Let them learn. Then help them with a list and still back off. Not the same as what you said here but similar in the fact of ‘taking the decision making away from the executives and putting in the hands of the team’


17 Amy Hackworth August 26, 2013 at 5:03 pm

I think my sister was counseled toward this kind of approach for her young teenagers in a Love and Logic class. Her son was sure upset when she didn’t insist he get up after he turned off his alarm clock, but I think he was on time for school the next day.


18 amanda August 26, 2013 at 4:33 pm

thanks so much, amy. finding this post today is just perfect. as an anti-scheduling homeschooling mom – we made our first ever chore schedule for the new school year – and it has been utterly amazing. i don’t have to say anything! what?!?!? and they are doing all sorts of chores that they had not done before (all of the things i was doing), + everything is done so much faster. and remember, i don’t have to say anything!
the idea of a family meeting! this sounds so, so good. a time to discuss things when everyone is calm + to all work to improve things. it is so what i needed to read today!
* to share with everyone – one more thing that has changed everything for me: setting the parental control time limits on our computer for each child. why did i not know to do this sooner? i no longer have to say when it’s time to get off of the computer. or debate how much more time they need! abolutely brilliant!
thanks again, amy. would love to know more about a family mission statement next!


19 Amy Hackworth August 26, 2013 at 5:04 pm

Amanda, so great to hear that this has been working for your family! Congratulations on your success! Thanks for the inspiration!


20 Jennifer August 26, 2013 at 4:34 pm

We’ve been using get ready lists for a couple of years and they’re so helpful. “How are you doing on your list” is much more effective than constant nagging. I listed the tasks for my older boys and took photos of the steps for my younger daughter (clothes, toothbrush, cereal, coat and shoes, etc.). Add check off boxes and take them to Kinko’s for dry-erase laminate so they can check them off each morning. My favorite to-do is “Hug Mom” — both for my older pre-teen and a reminder to me to slow down and enjoy the chaos!


21 Amy Hackworth August 26, 2013 at 5:05 pm

I love hearing that this has been successful for you, Jennifer, and especially love your reminder to hug mom. Perfect!


22 heidi August 26, 2013 at 6:20 pm

we have a detailed chore chart that rotates on a monthly basis. (thanks to my husband, who maintains it) I can then easily see who has (or hasn’t) done their chores. The new challenge is teenagers who perhaps aren’t here to set the table, then whose job is it to cover. Usually it is me :(


23 Marian August 27, 2013 at 7:49 am

We have 6 kids and do use checklists, but it is an ongoing ebb and flow in effectiveness. . . . And then I have to remind then to check their list. Moms are reminders, no matter what we will always find something to follow up about.


24 Eleanor Starr August 27, 2013 at 12:51 pm

Hi, it’s the afore mentioned Eleanor Starr. I’m working on remaking our lists for the new school year, and after reading some of the comments, I’ve got this advice:

For us, lists and visual reminders only work in their present state for about 3 weeks, and then we need to change them. A change can be as simple as changing the color of paper the list is printed on, or the color of ink the list is printed with. On our self directed morning list, I’ve added one line that I change every few weeks, and I’ve found the kids love it. It usually says something like “tell mom you love her”, “give mom a hug”, “do 7 jumping jacks”, “suggest something for dinner”, “squeeze the dog”, etc. I try to make it simple, and fun. Every time I change this line, I change its placement on the list, which keeps them engaged with the list.

Cheers! And I wish you positive changes!

Elle Starr


25 Kristiina August 27, 2013 at 1:10 pm

Great ideas…with school starting next week this article and your input couldn’t have come at a better time. Thanks, Amy and the Starr family (and of course, Design Mom)…:)


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