This week’s blog post is one that I have been thinking about for a while, because I really liked the story from the time I started blogging, but I could not figure out how to relate it to the subject of business families. Until now.

The title, asking where the problem was, comes from a question that my father asked me over a decade ago, after I had tried to describe a situation that I needed his help with.

My wife and I had a couple of toddlers in the house back then, and during a trip to Costco, we saw a swing set with a circular slide that we thought would look great in our backyard. We hastily decided to buy it, not realizing the monumental task of assembling it that lay ahead.

Now I love Costco because they sell really good stuff at the lowest prices you will likely find anywhere, but that does not necessarily make their merchandise “user-friendly”. I am not the most “handy” guy either, but my wife is actually one of the best IKEA furniture assemblers I have ever met.

How hard could it be? “Next to impossible” was the eventual answer.

Literally four or five weeks later, the structure stood in our yard, but just barely. We hesitated to allow the kids to use the equipment, because we could not trust the thing the way we had put it together. “Maybe your Dad could help us”, suggested my wife.

So I called him up and described the issue as best I could. “Is it a problem of design, material, or workmanship?, came his question. I thought about it and answered “Yes, Yes, and Yes.”

In retrospect, I had not realized how good he was at getting to the root of the problem before trying to offer solutions, and I Iike to think that I inherited some of that from him, to make up for the lack of handyman skills that I got.

He came over a couple of days later to analyse the job we had done and immediately began shaking his head at the monstrosity we had cobbled together. Within an hour, we had put together a list of material and we headed to the local lumberyard to buy what we needed to address the shortcomings.

A couple of days later, after he returned with his tools and equipment, we had a veritable fortress of a structure. It was now strong enough for the whole family to climb aboard, and was eventually a heck of a job to remove later when the kids were too big for it and me opted for a pergola instead.

The business family lessons here are numerous. Dad founded a company with certain skills and abilities, some of which I inherited, some of which I did not. We still managed to work together and produce a great result, but it was not necessarily straightforward.

Let’s look again at the design, material, workmanship question. How does the family design the way it will work together, especially over the long term, and how are they going to govern the family enterprise as one generation will make way for the next?

The material of the business family is basically the family members, the human assets that are the heart of the operation, the ones upon whom the focus should be (as opposed to the widgets the company makes).

Is the family putting the emphasis on making sure the materials are the best they can be, thinking about education and finding the best role for each person?

What about workmanship? Hmmm, this one took a while for me to put my finger on. I am not 100% sure that this is the best fit for the analogy, but I am going to go with relationships.

When looking at a business family and attempting to diagnose where to begin to help them, you might ask if their key issue is Governance, Human Capital, or their Relationships.

Hopefully it won’t be all three!