Saturday, March 9, 2013

Parenting as Lean Startup

I'm currently reading "The Lean Startup" by Eric Ries, but this blog entry is not exactly about the book, rather it's a cross pollination of two ideas and goals that I have been working to improve. How can I enable the company to be a more successful startup and, on a personal level, how can I enable my children to become successful adults. While reading the "The Lean Startup", it just dawned on me that Parenting is Management and a Startup.

Eric's definition of startup is resonated with me "A startup is a human institution designed to deliver a new product or service under conditions of extreme uncertainty." I would modify Eric's definition as follow for parenting: Family is a human institution designed to deliver the next generation of adults under condition of extreme uncertainty. The part about extremely uncertainly clearly nails the problem I think parents face. There are 4 major reasons why parenthood is all about facing uncertainty.

1) No one has any experience as a parent for the first time. There are no user guides that will ever explain what it means to be a parent.

2) Every child is different. Some child might look like one or both parents, but personality is all their own. I hear parents talking about how one child are so much themselves as a child. It's possible, but I feel it is just wishful thinking or emulation. Parent should just accept that kids are different and any similarities are temporary and coincidental. Instead, focusing on their uniqueness and celebrate their differences and inner strength would be more successful in the long run.

3) No one can predict the attributes, conditions, and knowledge necessary that determines definition a successful adult of the future. For all we know, we might have a nuclear winter and the most vicious human characteristic is necessary condition for survival. Even without going to such extreme, I often hear parents planning their children's future career or field of study. I always wonder, how one knows if those jobs will even be around. My job title didn't even exist 50 years ago. 
Globalization and software and robotic automation are changing job title and positions at an incredible rate. How does anyone know what job might be good or bad in 10 or 20 years from now.

4) The present day problems are vastly different from problems of the past. Talking with our parents, I get a sense that the problem of old is constraint. Our parents tried to optimize based on limited options due to money, job, immigration, etc. But I don't think that will be the problem for our children. Our children will have the problem of choice. Given almost infinite number of choices, how do parents optimize based on environment / innate talent fit and have the discipline to stay focus long enough to get meaningful results? (another phrase I ripped off... Market/Product fit changed to Environment/Talent fit) Just consider the simple example of after school activities. There are the traditional activities: biking, swimming, scouting, soccer, baseball, piano, etc. But as I recently found out, here in southern California, we have Olympic level instructors for figure skating, archery, fencing, taekwondo, acting, modeling, and much more teaching lessons for children as young as 3 years old. Many of these classes have long waiting list because too many parents trying to push their kids into the programs.

I think Eric's definition of startup is actually a very canny fit for parenting and lean startup 5 principles are also right on target.

1) Entrepreneurs are everywhere. Yes. This is obvious, families are everywhere.

2) Entrepreneurship is management. Parenting is management. This is might be an unusual concept but every people that are both managers and parents say they often draws from both side to help them become better in the other role. Parenting is self-management, child management, and environmental risk mitigation.

3) Validated learning. This is the key principle for lean startup and parenting. My job as a parent is not to shape my child in a certain way or path. It is my job to learn what works for my children based on careful observation of the child's specific environment / talent fit and maximum his or her abilities to become an independent, capable, and happy adult. We can debate the order of the 3 attributes but I think these 3 are my key success factors.

4) Build-Measure-Learn. Parents are not building children, it's much more complicated. Children are natural learning "machines", but they are not always selective about what they learn. So they learn mostly whatever the parents and the environment exposes to them. Part of my job as parent is to carefully select concept and knowledge based on the child's readiness. However, not every concept and knowledge would have the same rate of learning, and every child has his and her own interests, talents, and environmental influences. I believe that parents must be a curator, selectively determine what would be necessary and interesting for children to learn. We must determine the rate of learning relative to other children in similar environment and situation, and then learn whether to pivot or preserver. For children, learning is not fix concept restricted to class room or lesson plans. It's everything. Everything they watch on TV. And they especially learn how the parents act in different situation. Always assume your children are watching your every action and memorizing your every word choice.

5) Innovation accounting (vs. vanity metrics). This is another incredible key concept for me to become a better parent. Eric careful separates vanity metrics vs. innovation accounting. We all have seen the tiger parents pushing their kids with overwhelm amount of after school tutoring and demanding to have the highest test scores in the classroom, or skip to a higher grade level. I feel these are examples of vanity metric for parents. It's not say test scores are not important, they are very important, but how and why the kids work to get the test scores are just as important. The purpose of innovation accounting is to measure the impact of your change to the desired outcome. In the case of test scores, my focus as a parent is not on the test scores result, but the steps leading up to the test scores. Does the child have good environment for learning, does the child have the right tools for learning, can the child motivate himself to learn (without constant nagging or pressure from parents), does the child respect the learning by doing neat work and double check his own work, and does the child have the confidence to learn and positive attitude to deal with setback with bad results. All these steps are much more important to me than a number on the test score. I need to find ways to score myself as a parent to really make sure I'm doing the best job possible.

Let's compare the root problem of startup that the lean startup method is trying to solve. The basic premise of the lean startup method is that too much money, time, and talent are wasted building unnecessary things that don’t actually help the company create a sustainable business. The lean startup method is a framework to identify these problems as soon as possible while there is still time and money to make the necessary changes. This is also the root problem that parents must address. How do I know if I'm doing the right thing for my children that will actually help him become a successful adult? We only have so much time, energy and money, so how do I make sure I'm scoring myself and making changes all along the way. One of my worst nightmares is to pressure a child to finish college or focus on a particular sport then realizes too late that the child hates the degree or sport, ended up burning out and turns into a beach bum.

If parenting is management, then there must a set of Objective Measurement that decides if I'm doing a good job. My quarter performance objectives would look something like this for my son.

Objective: Child can independently start and finish homework on a timely manner.
1) Spend 15 minutes on school days to review the homework and make a positive comment about his learning and encourage him to learn from his prior mistakes without negative or condescending comments.
2) Talk with the teachers at least once a month outside of report card review time to discuss child behavior and challenges in the classroom.

Objective: Expand child's interest in new areas and subjects.
3) Take child to try 2 new things (or places) and we'll have a meaningful and uninterrupted by email or cellphone time with child.
4) Cut back the child's use of electrical / TV time by 20% on a weekly basis and replace them with sports or reading.

I still need to think more about how to measure and learn if these objectives actually and positively contribute child's personal growth. I'm really inspired by Eric's book for startup and even more as a framework for parenting.

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