Life Agile: Being a Father

I often talk about fake agility – agility in process and not in your mind.  And I nauseatingly tell everyone that if you want to be agile, you must become agile in your life.  The one area that I’ve been struggling with for almost nine years is fatherhood.  I don’t think there is a tougher learning ground for agility than being a father (of course, Fiona will tell me that motherhood is a lot harder, and she’s most probably right).  But after just under nine years, I still feel like a beginner on the Dreyfuss scale.  I do look for signs and feedback and adapt to parenting situations on demand but the unpredictability of being a father is undeniably higher than any software project I’ve worked on.  The reason is simple: children are naturally agile.  They react to their environment instinctively, doing what makes sense to them.  In spite of being aware of agility, the theory, the principles and practices and being a practitioner for so long, I am convinced that agility in fatherhood is a significant step in life agility.
To help me progress beyond “Beginner”, I invited some friends to write a short piece on Agile Fatherhood.  Each one my guests has either just become a father for the first time or been “coaching” for a few years now.  I left the interpretation of the topic up to each person.  Personally, I think it makes for some fascinating reading.  And if you know these amazing geeks, you will learn a more personal side of them and understand them just a little bit more.

So here are some thoughts from friends much wiser than I and for whom I have an immense amount of respect.

claudioClaudio Perrone ( Oh man I hate you 😀 )

Being only one month on my first baby boy I feel I’m not even chartered in the Dreyfus model, so I’m not sure I have much experience to share yet 😀

Being agile means to be able to quickly adapt to change, not simply react to it. Irene and I have struggled a lot. Then something happened. Instead of reacting with frustration to an ever screaming baby (I still call him the Anti Christ 😉 I began to fully accept Matteo as an individual I needed to understand better. I “reprogrammed” my tone and attitude. I read a book on newborns. Apparently I have a “touchy baby” (aren’t they all?). So was I apparently. My mum told me that, exasperated, she once brought me to the doctor asking “what the hell is wrong with him???”
Among other things, I took ownership of the kitchen (i had to) and bought a book to try many new recipes (I didn’t have to, but I was getting bored of my usual pasta).

Finally, in the last few days, I dropped my usual bottom-up GTD approach to productivity and went back to a top down approach. Mission, roles and goals, in other words (or “do the right things before doing them right”). It is still work in progress, but the sudden imbalance forced me to revisit my roles as family member, friend, self (to eat better, exercise, learn and refine my skills), my impact at work (ahah currently none), my contribuition in the community and, finally, how I can still relax and enjoy life. (if you are curious, I’m  experimenting with Life Balance for the iPhone – Omnifocus is suddenly sitting idle).

If you need only one sentence with an agile perspective:
Embrace change and enjoy the ride. And since you can’t possibly be perfect, strive to achieve instead 😉

niclas-bw_biggerNiclas Nilsson I tweeted this a little while ago, and a lot of people actually found it to be a useful analogy:

Raising a kid is like playing a platform game. First everything is new and a bit tricky, but then you get a hang of it. For a while, it’s actually quite smooth and you start to believe you’re pretty good at it. About that time, it turns out you have completed that level and you’re standing at the gates to the next level. But to get to the next level, you have to pass a monster…

If I’ll connect this to your question, what I mean is that everything seems to go in phases (iterations? at least increments), and that you’ll always get a new challenge (often in surprise) that you don’t know how to handle and you have to resort to your problem-solving agile mind to figure out what to do. Or rather, what to try first, since you have to try and try again until you find what works. If your lucky (or talented? or hard-working?), you’ll find a way that works and avoid screwing them up for life, but you’ll have to wait and see until they become teenagers to be sure. There’s no roll-back functionality in life. You can try compensating transactions, but you can never go back to the exact same state.

Profile_HKHerman Lintvelt Wow! Selected from maybe millions of people… 🙂

Communication; the importance thereof. That is probably one of the main ideas that I am extracting from the Agile approach. One of Agile’s core principles is to place people above processes. That implies that good communication is very important. Part of good communication is regular, positive feedback. So I’m trying to really make that part of my approach towards my two-year old boy. (His sister is only six weeks old now, so communication currently consists of making goo-goo sounds, or sometimes just googling at her). E.g, we are encouraging him to say “please” when asking for something, but recently realised that we are not using “please” when we ask him something. Now I try to lead by example and use “please” and “thank you” when talking to him as well.

I still have a lot of iterations ahead with them both, and I’m excited as well as a bit afraid of everything to come. There is a lot of different “formal” approaches and recipes one reads about for raising children, and I know I won’t be able to follow all of that advice, so I’m just staying agile and concentrating on people above processes.

chris-face_biggerChris Hedgate I really like Niclas’ analogy with platform games. I remember some games where you could move along quite smoothly through a level, save whenever you want and come back later to continue. But then, you go through a door, and you find yourself at the final stage of that level. You are not allowed to save at that stage, so you have to go through it in one try, or start over from that door. That reminds me of how it often feels with my 3-year old now. Sometimes I find myself in a situation that I either have to work through, which often requires lots of time and energy, or just let it go and come back to it later. I used to do this wrong I think, where I would try working it out but not have enough patience or time, and all of that work was lost. It’s the age old saying, “You can’t be efficient with people”. So I think that is one thing that connects work and fatherhood for me, always deciding if it is the right time to pursue some goal or try to make some change happen.

For me, the most important parts of agile is people-focus and constant learning. And I definitely bring both of those to fatherhood. Like Herman said, communication is really key. It is amazing what a 3-year old can tell you if you really ask, and understanding their reasoning will often show you that you are trying to “fix” something completely different from what the problem really is. And there’s where the patience and time comes in, you cannot rush this communication.

Regarding learning, I believe life is a long continuous learning experience. So therefore I encourage my son whenever he is interested in something. Right now he is into dinosaurs, so we talk a lot about dinosaurs, look at pictures and so on. He can name Tyrannosaurus, Brachiosaurus, Anchylosaurus, Stegosaurus, Triceratops, Pterodactyl and probably a few more from seeing them in a picture.

Regarding Claudio’s comment about retrospectives, I think even if you do not have formal retrospectives it is a great idea for both mother and father to observe and discuss each other’s behavior. It is much easier to see or hear things from an observer point. Also, we often find that if one of us do not have patience to continue through a situation, the other one can step in and resolve it.

Finally, to round off a rather long mail, I have to tell a story describing a recent situation. My son has a party whistle, the ones that make a whistle sound and roll themselves out, that he loves to blow. The problem is that my dog can’t stand the sound and tries to bite the whistle, often resulting in pushing my son to the ground and he gets upset.  So, I see him grabbing the whistle with her (the dog) standing right beside. I could have said “Do not blow the whistle here”, but I know how well that would have worked. Instead I asked him what happens when he blows it, and he said that the dog gets angry.  “Then what happens”, I asked, and he answered that she jumps up and pushes him. So I asked how he likes that, and he said that he gets upset and starts to cry. I asked if he wanted that, and he said no.  So finally I ask “What do you want to do then?”, and he says “I’ll go upstairs and blow it”, and goes directly up without blowing it on the way.

Has this helped me?  Yes and no.  Yes, because the analogies and lessons are extremely insightful and valuable. No, because they didn’t have a magic wand cure.  But that’s exactly the point.  There is no magic, just learning and adjusting all the time.  Like I always say: “You need to let it take over your life.”.  When you do, then everything becomes simpler.  Like making that 1px adjustment on the last level of that game or just blowing your whistle where the dog can’t get to you.

6 thoughts on “Life Agile: Being a Father

  1. I break fatherhood down to one single line I wrote a while back: “I am an infant growing up alongside another.” Please allow me to repeat what I have written elsewhere before.
    Becoming a father was a reluctant choice – an unnerving experience, waiting at the hospital – the smell still lingers strongly. I vividly remember the intrusive procedure, the graceful violence and brilliant colours of cesarean birth under incandescent lights – and the small, reddish face, eyes shut, and gut-wrenching sounds. I wondered about the small, bloodied, helpless little body, and how on earth I will ever manage this responsibility. I wondered fearfully, trembled when I first held him, enveloped in uncertainty – until he opened his eyes, stared at me – and everything changed!
    There is no greater contribution that a man can make than preparing his child to find their way in the world. All my training in fatherhood is pretty much on the job. There is no “blue print” for how a family should be, and watching my son play, explore and rip apart most things in the house, I am very hesitant of the responsibility for the following years. It is as Shakespeare asserted: “The voice of parents is the voice of gods, for to their children they are heaven’s lieutenants.” That is an enormous responsibility.
    As a boy I step over to this great monolith of fatherhood, unprepared with all the fear of that small child, and reaching down, place beside it the role model of my own father – and his father before him, and his father before him – praying all the while that this fulcrum will not collapse as I balance and steer my own course through the chaotic and catastrophic possibilities of life.
    Agility in this sense is about adaptability. It is impossible to follow a recipe.
    Thank you for this post. It goes to the heart of things!

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