Parenting goes corporate

Regular readers will be familiar with my dismay at the kind of bumph that passes for strategic planning. I recall as ‘thinker in residence’ at a one of the major departments in Canberra having a discussion with senior management about Web 2.0 and innovation in government. They began the conversation by posting a list of dot points which purportedly identified the department’s or one of it’s division’s strategic goals.  I was completely lost. I can remember nothing of the strategic objectives of the department, but I think one of them involved getting more outputs from inputs. (Which gives you some idea of how useful – not – such desiderata are.)

I loathe long retreats that seem to go forever which come up with mission and vision statements and other religious credimus (I am informed by my Latin studying son that ‘credimus’ is the plural of ‘credo’.) I think such things are now going out of fashion, but the new things seem even worse to me. One such is functional diagrams. The problem with functional diagrams is the suggestion they create of one to one mappings between nominated functions and what people do. Or articulations of ‘values’. Spare me. So tell me, if we don’t put ‘honesty’ in does it mean we’re not too keen on honesty? Timeliness? Equity? Transparency? What do we leave out? Why? I have been known to feign death to avoid such deliberations. 

I can articulate – or try to articulate what I dislike about these things – but the proof of the pudding should be in the eating. If some style of collective thinking isn’t up to scratch in terms of philosophical rigour then so much the worse for philosophical rigour if it helps the organisation think or act.  My argument would be that it actually gets in the way.  Pretending that strategies are emanations of values (rather than occasionally constraining a strategy because it’s not ethical) actually deranges the thinking process. People are forever making believe that they’re following the formula, whereas most good thinking and discussion has a very high implicit content and we know from research that we reason ‘backwards’ as it were – finding reasons for conclusions that we arrive at intuitively – whether those conclusions are ethical or practical.

And just as a matter of fact, I can’t think of a framework or mission or vision statement that has helped me either think of something worthwhile or actually helped shape my thinking in any useful way. Can you?  (I guess one exception to this is the fashion in – I think the 1980s – to try to rethink firms around functions and markets rather than the things they did.  So a carpet maker became the provider of “floor covering solutions”. Well the jargon may not be appealing but the idea is a good one which is to try to think a bit laterally about what it is you do, what your market is, rather than define yourself by your current activities. On the other hand the whole idea of a business having to have a ‘mission’ is kind of obviously ridiculous. Nothing wrong with it having a mission if that’s what it wants to have, but why does it have to have a mission any more than a school has to have a mascot?)

In any event I was put in mind of this one day when I happened upon Dr Phil on the TV. He was doing a show on parenting, and had on a thoroughly ghastly woman who was nagging her kid to death. (he was still alive at this point). I was rather taken with the way the moustachioed hero ended his show which was with resignation. Having tried in that touchy feely way to get her to realise that she needed to let the child get a word in edgeways, to realise that it wasn’t all about her, he finally gave up and with the credits rolling said to her words to the effect “well you seem to be happy that you’re doing a great job.  You’re here telling me that it doesn’t seem to be working, that you’ve got problems, but somehow you’re not doing anything wrong so I guess it’s all someone else’s fault – your husbands and your child’s and the child’s school so good luck with it”.

The program ended with Dr Phil’s five steps of parental discipline.  And as I read the five steps I realised that the same haze, the same vacuous stupor that came over me at the department looking at its strategic objectives. It’s not that the five steps lack merit or are wrong. But they’re propositional.  And it seems to me that so much is implicit in relationships that propositions often serve to muddy the waters. Perhaps this is partly about different cognitive styles, but for me, when I watch parenting that I think isn’t much chop it’s not because parents have got the wrong propositions in their head. It’s because they are not relating to their children. They’re zoned out – in a world of their own. In that state Dr Phil’s propositions won’t help them, they’ll just zone their way from one disaster to another and following the principles will be their new way of misunderstanding what to do.

Here are Dr Phil’s . . .

Five Steps to Disciplining Your Kids

Do you need alternatives on how to get through to your children? Are you at the end of your rope? Dr. Phil offers Five Steps on How to Discipline Your Kids—without spanking.

1. Commit Yourself.
2. Be Realistic in Your Expectations of Your Child.
3. Define Your Child’s Currency.
4. Give Your Children Predictable Consequences.
5. Use Child-Level Logic.

Anyway, here are Dr Nick’s steps of parenting.

1.  Relate to your child.

You’re supposed to bridge the cognitive divide between you and your kid. You won’t do it perfectly, but, to paraphrase Janis Joplin, it’s all you’ve got baby. If you can’t do it, you’ll be pretty lousy at parenting. Anyway, the key is – they’re thinking differently to you – they’re just little kids. So you need some empathy with them, some ability to put yourself in their place. That’s the foundation of everything. Any rule, any practice that goes against this is wrong, even if it hurts your ego to admit it.

2.  Give your children predictable consequences.

Yep, just like Dr Phil says.

3.  Forget rule 2 (or any rule other than rule 1) whenever it seems sensible.

Your intuition may tell you that ‘predictable consequences’ are a bad idea – that you shouldn’t have threatened something. If so, don’t do it. Also, when you start implementing the ‘predictable consequences’ your child’s reaction may tell you that it’s a bad idea. Of course you have to be aware that you can’t turn that reaction into a ‘currency’ (to use Dr Phil’s term) by which your child will manipulate you. However children are not (in Dr Nick’s experience) naturally manipulative. They’re stimulus response organisms like us all, but you more or less have to train them to be manipulative. If you try to be consistent, but sometimes relent and if you are actually learning from your own experience, then keeping a healthy eye on the possibility of manipulation is all you need to keep this issue sorted.

4.  Try to limit power battles.

Your kid will naturally think you’re all knowing and all wise, which doesn’t mean you can’t be irritating the life out of them at the same time every now and again.  Remember when you’re having a power battle, your own feelings are involved. This means you won’t be thinking all that straight. Try and find another way through.

5.  Be decisive when it’s necessary. Explain if necessary, but don’t overestimate how much they’ll take in and don’t enter into arguments that are not real searches for truth (hint: almost none of them are).

When I was a kid one of the expressions I most hated was that I had to do something “because 1 said so”.  When I was a parent I rapidly became aware that most arguments are not really on the level.  I remember my eldest smashing something.  There was nothing so wrong with her having smashed it, and I wasn’t chastising her but she felt bad about it so she said ‘we’ll fix it’.  I said ‘we can’t fix it’.  It was something that couldn’t be fixed, a smashed glass, a cracked egg, whatever. She insisted that we would fix it.  Why? Because it was important to her that it could be fixed. So rather than go on arguing I just said we’d see or something like that and distracted her with something else so that we could move on.

This episode led me to articulate (to myself then, but now to you O Troppodillians) my theory of argument. Almost no arguments are bona fide. They’re always feelings in the guise of reason. (This also applies to adults, but the implications of that fact for your own conduct are different and are not dealt with here.) When you are arguing with a kid the kid is not thinking ‘What a great opportunity to get to the bottom of this puzzle that I’ve been wondering about for a long time’.  They’re thinking “He wants me to wind up the window and I don’t want to”, they’re thinking “I’ll leave it down and say ‘why?’, that should keep things going the way I want for  a while and we’ll see what happens then”. My response to this was usually “If you want to know that let’s discuss it, but we’re not discussing it when we’re both cross, so we can discuss it in half an hour”. If it was urgent I would resolve the immediate question with some kind of command which would be physically forced if necessary, but it is better if you can think of some kind of negotiated (but not argued) strategy.

Here one might say “OK, you can have it open for another five minutes if you agree to close it afterward”. Much better not to let it become a battle of egos. But an argument is guaranteed to make it just that. And I think in eighteen years of parenting, that option to have the argument half an hour or more later when things weren’t so emotional was taken up once or twice (though in each case it was a sign that things remained just as emotional – that’s why the argument retained it’s interest. Anyway, in that context it was fine to try to have the argument.)

Anyway, that’s five rules. They’re not very comprehensive, but nor are Dr Phil’s. But it’s a start. A first draft perhaps.

What thinkest thou O Troppodillians?

Postscript: Commenter Conrad fills us in on some important developments in the mission statement space. Swinburne has a statement of direction. And when they say direction, they mean, well direction as in ->. As in =>.  Arrows. There are arrows in their statement of direction. I think you need to see their statement of direction. It will build a sustainable future. What you have to admire about this is that so many other organisations are building – quite deliberately – unsustainable futures. Abba was an unsustainable band. They didn’t have a mission statement, but if they had it would have been something like “We exist to get a lot of hits and be unsustainable, but for as long as we can”. Adolf Hitler’s mission statement “kill, maim, destroy” was all very well, but it was unsustainable. We beat the crap out of the guy.  Blew the place kingdom come. Pol Pot – same kind of thing. OK – so do you get sustainability now? It’s got to be forever, and if you can’t make that stick then take a leaf out of Abba’s book and make it last for as long as possible. Abba didn’t have arrows in its mission statement though. Those arrows really add something. By 2015 Swinburne will be committed to community – now it’s just committed to sustainability. I hope this is at least as clear to you as it is to me.  <=


Postscript 2: Here‘s a podcast of a radio interview I did on this post.

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Ken Parish
12 years ago

I think you’ll find credo is actually a verb in Latin, and credimus is the first person plural present tense of the verb, which isn’t what you’re wanting at all. I think the God-botherers hijacked it into English as a noun (Nicene creed etc), the plural of which shows in my dictionary as the decidedly uninteresting credos. Still, credimus is much nicer. Credimus the Plausible Super-Rodent?

Mike Pepperday
Mike Pepperday
12 years ago

Ken, when I saw it I paused and then decided it was precisely what he wanted: credo = I believe; credimus = we believe. Fitted the context perfectly: the retreat doing a medieval chant: Credimus, credimus, credimus…

12 years ago

“I can’t think of a framework or mission or vision statement that has helped me either think of something worthwhile or actually helped shape my thinking in any useful way.”

Even if you could find one that did, there is of course the second step in whether you or anyone would actually act upon the statement.

Rather than finding a useful one, perhaps you can have a Troppo most ridiculous mission statement competition. My work changed theirs, but the old version was used as a prop by the Hollowmen it was so ridiculous (unfortunately, I can’t find the old version right now).

Marshall King
12 years ago

Hi Nicholas

With regard to reasoning “backwards” – I have always had this intuition with regard to much of the moral and political debate that goes on around university. You take a position (on the basis of an intuition or some formative experience that gives you a conviction regarding something) and try to construct a plausible narrative or description of why it necessarily has to be the case. It is certainly not as though people collect all known data and argument in the universe and deduce timeless moral principles from a “line of best fit” regarding some pressing moral issue, which henceforth acts as your overarching principle of action/overarching value statement. However, people seem pretty hesitant to admit that that is actually what is going on – I sense because if it were widely known to be the case then a whole lot of “rational” moral and political philosophy (‘science’) would seem a lot less pressing, because it is more a species of rhetoric than a science.

Can you possibly point me towards some of this research you mentioned in passing? Thanks for the post.

Ken Parish
12 years ago is clearly what you need. They have an entire section of family mission statements. My favourite is the Cree family of Bangor NSW whose mission statement is admirably concise:

Our mission is to promote composting and compost utilisation in Ireland.

12 years ago

Nicholas — what’s this world class business you’re talking about? That’s just passé now. And Ken, composting? Well that’s actually useful. It’s internationalisation that’s the key word now. I know, I’ve found my university statement on it. I bet CDU pales in comparison. Next time I want a promotion, I’ll be sure to consider the following (and many other goodies I won’t write in here), and repeat it many times inappropriately:

“Swinburne will be an international university that recognises its
international role whilst meeting local and regional needs. Our
students will come from around the world and our graduates
will be prepared for an international workplace.

Staff will be members of an international education community
and will strive to build Swinburne to be a significant international
university. International perspectives will enrich the delivery of
learning, teaching and research at all Swinburne campuses.
Swinburne will further develop an international perspective for its
learning and teaching and enhance the experiences of all students;
on-campus and offshore.

Swinburne will benchmark itself internationally and develop its
international presence based on strong partnerships.”

In case anyone thinks this is actually satire, it’s not. Straight from Swinburne professional learning (who are no doubt internationally experienced). There are lots of other goodies in there, with a picture with arrows as well. Can’t find the summary, which is possibly even better and the one used by the Hollowmen.

Ken Parish
12 years ago

If only they had aimed at being THE international university for international working families, they would have nailed it. So near and yet so far. And I’m deeply disappointed by your short-sightedly negative attitude to composting. I bet those Swinburne marketers know there’s an international aspect to compost. Merde Sans Frontières …

Ken Parish
12 years ago

BTW CDU’s mission statement composts all over Swinburne. It’s more succinct anyway:

Enriched by the social, cultural and natural endowments of the Northern Territory, and committed to the advancement and prosperity of our region and the nation, Charles Darwin University enables staff and prepares students to be creative thinkers and effective contributors in a complex changing world.

12 years ago

I think I like the way its all ‘underpinned by a committment to a sustainable swinburne’ most of all.

12 years ago

I think there could be many posts on parenting and have the sense that many parents fall down in number 5.

I was recently in a milk bar in Tassie and my 6 year old daughter went to grab a chocolate bar. I said No and that was the end of it (it’s her job to try things on and mine to be decisive). However the (older) woman in the milk bar said “Well done”. I was surprised as I thought most parents would do this – apparently not.

Also – I have just tried in my work team (of 6) to develop a mission statement (can’t think of a better term) collaboratively ie why do they pay our salaries. I think it’s worked but time will tell. We have a fairly broad remit and this gives us some guide as to prioritising which activities we might do. I confess that I have never seen a good example of strategic planning in a large group.

12 years ago

I should clarify. We are a technical team whose work is a long way from service delivery. The ‘mission statement’ (I would love for a better term) is simply a statement relating what we do to improving the services real people get – partly to remind us that we only exist because of service delivery and also as a test to help us work out what we should do (rather than just continuing to do what we have always done).

The 5 minute idea is a good one. My main objective was that the team should all be involved in the statement’s creation. (Like any of these activities, the process is far more important than the outcome). So I will now try and refine it by email (they are a technical team and don’t like touchy feely discussions much).

We will call it strategic planning but it will really be a modus operandi. The main thing that is really lacking in my general experience is the overt discussion of strategic issues. As organisations, we can do this in small groups (mainly informally over coffee), but actually honestly talking about current trends and what we might do is incredibly rare.

The planning will pretty much be what you have described, although I think there is value in consciously talking about how we work as a group, to help us reflect on what we do as well as get ideas. Of course this is only of use if we can discuss this honestly.

Just my thoughts.

Legal Eagle
Legal Eagle
12 years ago

I enjoyed this post, Nicholas! I have never found a mission statement that has worked for me, and I loathe those kind of planning days where people get together and put together such stuff.

I don’t know what my university’s mission statement is…I think I’ve hidden from it. A couple of years back the word du jour was “transformational”. Our teaching had to be “transformational” at all times. Sigh.