The 3 Big Questions for a Frantic Family | Notes & Review

Posted on November 3, 2008


I had the pleasure of hearing Patrick Lencioni in person (September 22, 2008) at a local YMCA fundraising event. Because I was solo, not attending with a big corporation (Wells Fargo was there, along with others), I was seated at “The Table Group” table; how fun is that? So, Pat walked up and after saying “hi” to his employees, pointed at me, and in kind and pleasurable conversational tones asked, “Does this guy work for us now?” We laughed and greeted each other.

Though it was a fun encounter, inside I was having one of those distant hopeful consideration moments. “Could I really work for you? Well, just as an intern, or a trainee…for just a short period of time (’cause I do need to keep my full-time paying job)?” Why? I think this stuff is important. Learning the “how’s,” answering the “why’s,” and identifying the “what’s” of life is what could turn organizations (and families) around in positive and meaningful directions. And personally, I am finding myself more drawn towards that kind of occupation. I love helping others do life well. I suppose that is why I’m in vocational ministry at a local congregation and why I enjoy reading and learning so much about this. Perhaps a lot of what we as ministers/pastors do is “life-consulting.” And though we would never use these terms in real life, perhaps, all of life is really built on leadership, management, and operational implementation. Sometimes we call it “I’ve got to get my act together,” or “I don’t know which end is up.” Too many of us are “burning the candle at both ends,” or feel “swamped,” “at a loss as to what to do,” and many other phrases I hear when I work with families, and take pastoral calls. So, I appreciate greatly the work of Lencioni as an influential contributor to my thinking and my work. Many thanks.

Which is why I was excited about his new book…

Below are my notes, some comments, and a review of Lencioni’s most recent, The 3 Big Questions for a Frantic Family: A Leadership Fable about restoring sanity to the most important organization in your life (Jossey-Bass, 2008). Thanks to the YMCA for my copy.

Writing again in a parable style, Lencioni’s leadership and organizational management principles now are translated for families. I personally appreciate the subtitle, for many need to be again reminded of what things in life are “most important.” May this book and these teachings not only help us manage our families better, but value them more. If we could all do that, then I am confident the world would be a better place.

I think we under-manage our families because we take them for granted. (viii) Sadly, it’s not until people actually have to face the possibility of losing their families (through divorce or substance abuse or other serious behavioral problems) that they finally come to realize that a little planning and strategy would have been worthwhile. But by then they’re spending hours and hours in painful discussions or counseling sessions just trying to recover what they’re on the verge of losing. Which reinforces the importance of the old saying, ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.’ (ix)

This has been a catch-22 for me, sociologically and philosophically. It has been said that sometimes you just need to “hit bottom.” While true that it would be better not to live in “recovery,” it is often that desperation that leads people towards learning. I have said it this way. While it is better to learn things second-hand (from the mistakes of others), virtually all people truly learn first-hand, from their own experiences. How do we fight against this?

Life should be an adventure. (x)

Yes it should. I’m reminded of an old Garfield strip that reads, “Why is having fun so much hard work?” Well, it may not be a lot of hard work, but it will require a bit of work.

So, what is it that consulting companies do to help organizations thrive? Here are the six questions that are asked in order to achieve organizational clarity (51).

1. What is the ultimate reason you’re in business (CORE PURPOSE)

2. What are the essential characteristics that are inherent in your organization and that you could never knowingly violate? (CORE VALUES)

3. What specifically does your company do, and for whom? (BUSINESS DEFINITION)

4. How do you go about doing what you do in a way that differentiates you from your competitors and gives you an advantage? (STRATEGY)

5. What is your biggest priority, and what do you need to accomplish to achieve it? (GOALS)

6. Who has to do what to achieve your goals? (ROLES AND RESPONSIBILITIES)


Under CORE VALUES is an explanation of aspirational, permission-to-play, and accidental values that cannot be confused with the values that are CORE to the organization.

Aspirational values are the ones you wish you had because it would make your organization better. Permission-to-play values are the values that often seem generic, because in reality they’re the minimum standards for working at a company. Without them, you don’t have permission to play, or work, at a company. Honesty. Respect. Integrity. That kind of thing. [A minimum standard of behavior (183).] Accidental values are those that aren’t necessarily good for a company, but exist. Sometimes they have to be eliminated or closely watched. (58) So, when you confuse your core values with your aspirational, permission-to-play, and accidental ones, you end up with a very long list of generic-sounding values that only inspire cynicism among employees–who think the executives are in denial about the real culture of the company. (59)

In making decisions, we help determine their strategic anchors–their three big areas of strategic focus. (64)

Every organization needs to have a top priority. We call it a ‘rallying cry.’ If everything is important, nothing is. (66) Essentially, it’s making something most important so that nothing distracts the organization from achieving it. (66-7)

In the middle here, there is a story about Southwest airlines that I thoroughly enjoyed. Apparently, one woman, a long-time customer, wrote a letter to the CEO complaining about the humor, especially in serious matters like safety. Rumor has it that the CEO sent a letter in return with three words on it. “We’ll miss you.”

One of the things about core values is that an organization will often take them to an extreme that’s not always helpful, but that’s what makes it core–they do it anyway. (83)

Don’t make the perfect the enemy of the good. (121)

All of this translates into a framework of questions specific to the family:

What makes the ___ family unique?

What is the most important priority in our lives right now?

To do that we will…

We will also have to stay on top of our regular responsibilities…

How will we keep these things alive?


In the concluding pages, the woman in the parable comes to an epiphany that is worth noting, and summarizes how one ought to think about these kinds of principles:

I don’t think organized is the right word. It’s more about being clear about who you are and what’s important. (155)

Some additional perspectives are included after the parable (as with the other writings of Lencioni) that are of high value. Page 171 and following could all be highlighted. Here are a couple key thoughts.

Complaining about the crazy lives we lead is something of a rite of passage in our culture. Unfortunately, society is facing a serious epidemic of chaos in families, the cost of which is both real and painful. (171) I’m here to say that it is not suppose to be this way, and it is certainly not inevitable. Yes, life should be busy and demanding at times, but it should also be lived with a sense of purpose and sanity that allows us to be the people we’re meant to be. And I don’t think anyone is meant to be perpetually tired and stressed. (172)

Context: the information and framework we need to make a decision in the most informed, intentional manner possible. Without context, every decision that confronts us, every situation we encounter, calls for unnecessary anxiety, stressful uncertainty, and unproductive conflict. This is all a shame because running a family, though difficult, should not be complicated (173). Like most things in life, it comes down to mastering a handful of simple concepts, which requires more persistence and dedication than it does intelligence. (173-4)

People need to be reminded more often than they need to be instructed. – Samuel Johnson.


What makes your family unique?

If you don’t know what differentiates your family from others, you won’t have a basis for making decisions, and you’ll try to be all things to all people.

What is your family’s top priority–rallying cry–right now?

You need to know what the single most important objective is for your family over the next two to six months. Without a top priority, everything becomes important and you end up reacting to whatever issues seem urgent that day.

How do you talk about and use the answers to these questions?

If you answer the first two questions but don’t use those answers in daily, weekly, and monthly decision-making, it will yield no benefits.

I have a great appreciation of the Author’s Note at the back, disclaiming that the value of this book would be affected by the real life impact of these principles in the Lencioni household itself. His transparency and honesty is fantastic, appropriately so, and I thank them for their willingness to share a glimpse of their family for the benefit of many others.

Last, the Family Example number 7 was a welcomed surprise; a “single woman in her twenties.” Again, what makes these principle so powerful, is that if one is willing to venture into the questions and do a little bit of thinking and work, these guides can benefit anyone. For me, as I live in a highly populated area of singles, I’ll be willing to commend this to them as they strive to seek the same kinds of clarity in their lives.

My final comments stem from an unfortunate tension I face with the vast majority of the families I work with in poverty. I won’t be able to give all my comments here, but suffice to say it seems that when a family only knows survival and recovery, how immediately applicable or appropriate is this for them? And how attainable is it when they lack any predisposition towards this kind of thinking in the first place? My critique is simply that while this is a great book, it is written for families of middle-class to wealthy stock. The examples in the book are familiar, but only if you’ve got the luxury of travel, a home, income, etc. (I appreciate Lencioni’s inclusion of this allusion on page 171). So, while I still have an appreciation of the book and believe that many in the business world would benefit, I am going to have a challenging time recommending this to my families who need some basic life skills first, before you hand them tools. When talking to my wife about this after the session, I said, “I just feel like if I gave some of my families these tools, they’d just go home and smash all the windows out. They just don’t have the basics of existence to know what to do with the tools.”

Regardless, I will strive to learn and grow more, and I truly do thank Lencioni for his contribution.

Posted in: Life, Reviews