You can probably imagine my initial reaction upon seeing the Wall Street Journal headline Run Your Family Like A Business. But, as it happens, you don’t need to: an artist happened to be passing and captured my expression in a painting. The result now hangs in the National Gallery in Oslo. (Due to an admin error, it’s been mislabelled as The Scream, by Edvard Munch.) As I read on, I steeled myself for all manner of soul-corroding advice: build your “family brand”, conduct 360-degree performance reviews on your spouse, fire underperforming children, and so forth. But I was pleasantly surprised. The piece drew on a new book, The Secrets Of Happy Families, and its author, Bruce Feiler, offers much thought-provoking advice. Indeed, when it comes to the notion that business wisdom might inform the way we conduct our personal lives, you might even say he pushes the envelope. But I won’t.
Feiler focuses on the work philosophy known as Agile, which emerged from software development – notorious for its missed deadlines, inhuman hours and botched products designed by committee. The trouble with big, multi-person projects is that even the best-run firms grow rigid; when circumstances change, they can’t adapt. Agile seeks to build in flexibility, for example through daily “scrums” at which every team member reports on what’s working and what’s not. Tweaking the system becomes a continuous process, not something that happens only when crisis strikes. Feiler introduces us to families who use Agile-style weekly reviews – 20-minute meetings in which everyone answers three questions: what worked for our family this week? What didn’t? What shall we work on this week?
I can see the merits in this, if only because designating a time for “family business” might let everyone stress less about such matters the rest of the week. So why does the idea of running life like a business continue to grate? The fear, surely, is that in importing business techniques, we’ll inadvertently import business values. Companies, however benign, use people as a means to some end; in families, people are the end. Agile is a productivity technique, and as with any such technique, there’s a pitfall: productivity, by definition, means productivity towards some goal. If your goals aren’t the right ones, no amount of productivity will help.
That’s true of even the most enlightened productivity techniques, such as the advice – well supported by research – that we’d perform better at work if we took afternoon naps. Yet if you’re relaxing only in order to shine at the office, the author Hanna Rosin worried recently, doesn’t that just reinforce “the notion that we humans are precision machines that must be kept in perfect order to operate efficiently”? Doesn’t it reduce us to cogs in a machine? My response: maybe, but at least you get a nap.
So is the idea of a “productive” family, or a “productive” romantic relationship, inherently absurd? Not necessarily, if what you’re trying to produce is love, or happiness, or well-adjusted kids. The risk is that business-style goals get smuggled in: start thinking in terms of targets, or high-profile achievements, or “innovation”, and happiness seems unlikely to follow. By all means borrow business techniques for your personal life. Just be careful you don’t accidentally turn your personal life into a business.
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This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
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