CHICAGO -- Though everyone can agree that it's important to cultivate a happy family life, there are those who will despise the idea of running their family like a business.
Ignore them. And then run, don't walk, to get a copy of Bruce Feiler's new book, "The Secrets of Happy Families: Improve Your Mornings, Rethink Family Dinner, Fight Smarter, Go Out and Play, and Much More."
I got deeply excited about this book after reading a Wall Street Journal essay in which Feiler, who writes the "This Life" column for The New York Times, described how software development companies, after years of dysfunctional team management, designed what is called the agile project management methodology to help teams perform efficiently -- and how those techniques can be applied to the chaos of family life.
Even if the very notion of taking on the role of CEO of your own "Family, Inc." makes you wince, this book provides very down-to-earth advice on how to better manage your home life.
As an added bonus, if it's the touchy-feely aspect of most self-help books that turns you off, you'll be spared any sentimental mumbo-jumbo in this very smart guide to making life with kids, in-laws and grandparents not only bearable but more meaningful.
Readers learn how to use the agile method's framework for team self-management -- emphasizing self-analysis and honest feedback to other team members, and using that knowledge to improve processes. They also get real examples of checklists, "information radiators" -- large, centrally located boards on which family members mark their progress on tasks -- and how real family meetings can, and should, be run.
But most importantly, readers understand that while empowering children to be fully contributing members of a family, creating "safe zones" where everyone can talk about their raw feelings, and maintaining flexibility, the real beauty is that "the agile family philosophy accepts and embraces the ever-changing nature of family life. ... It anticipates that even the best designed system will need to be re-engineered midstream."
In other words, if at first you don't succeed at being the Mike and Carol Brady of your block, try again.
And that's just Chapter One. The author goes on to suggest numerous easy-to-execute strategies for familial bliss, taken from some of the brightest minds in business.
Celebrity chef John Besh describes how to do "family dinner" at any time of the day. Jim Collins, the business management guru, and Sean Covey, the heir to the "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People" empire, talk about how to identify core values. Feiler gets Warren Buffett to weigh in on how to set kids' allowance.
Personally, I can't believe how my marketing-minded brain never before came up with the idea to create a written mission statement and set of core values, along with a logo, for my family. I'm already putting those wheels into motion and may even add on a family theme song while I'm at it.
Still, though this is the best book I've read about how to transform families into high-performing happiness machines, I have to lament that the terrible tragedy of this book is its limited audience.
Let's be real here: This book will move the dial for families that are already doing well. Those who read and loved Jonathan Haidt's "The Happiness Hypothesis," Daniel Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast and Slow," Paul Tough's "How Children Succeed," Collins' "Good to Great" and Gary Chapman's "The 5 Love Languages" are probably well-primed to tweak their family routines and traditions.
Really, this book should be required reading for the parents of every child attending a low-performing public school from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade.
While Feiler's tips for optimum organization can serve an overscheduled middle-to-upper-class family struggling to balance piano lessons and SAT prep, it would have greater impact on low-income families with single-parent heads of household who are juggling multiple jobs and child care arrangements on a tight budget.
The same goes for a reader who might be leading a family in which the children will be the first to attend college or otherwise just starting to get their fingers around the American dream of a middle-class life. In all those cases, this book could serve as a valuable inside peek at how high-functioning families live, and how they pass their wealth-creating habits on to their children.
Esther J. Cepeda is a nationally syndicated columnist. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.