My Agile Life: Pull

(This column is posted at, Steve’s LinkedIn, and Steve’s Tumblr)

More on my use of “Agile” and Scrum┬áin my life!

Let’s talk Pull, Agile, and personal productivity. Unfortunately this requires some backstory so I’ll try to keep it short.

  1. I use Scrum as my Agile method to keep life in order. That’s basically “have an ordered list of stuff to do, choose what to do in a timeframe from the top priority, do it, revise, repeat.”
  2. One of the foundational methods of Agile is Kanban. Kanban is simpler – have a workflow, and move work along the various states (like analyzing, doing, testing) while limiting work in progress. Often you only have one item in every state if that. Keeps you from multitasking and a big part is “pull” – something only moves along when nothing is ahead of it, ideally.
  3. Alot of Scrum uses Kanban elements including Work In Progress and Pull.

In this case, I’m big on Work In Progress and Pull. I’ve written about WIP before, so let’s talk Pull. This is a near-forgotten part of good productivity or personal productivity. There’s also a heavy psychological component that, when you acquire it, you’ll find your productivity soaring.

The basic idea of “Pull” is:

  1. You have certain states of work. Usually this is “backlog”, “definining”, “doing”, “testing”, and of course “done.”
  2. “Backlog” and “Done” have no limits, obviously.
  3. our backlog is in order of priority.
  4. hen one state is empty (no work in progress) then you can move an item into it. That’s pull. I like to think of it as a vacuum – when a state is “empty” it can “pull” something that’s ready to move on into it.

Catch the subtlety there? You can only move an item along your workflow when there’s a “void” that pulls it in. If it’s not ready, it doesn’t move (like a column not being ready for an editor who has free time). If there’s something ahead of it (like the editor is editing another column of yours, so your latest has to sit) it doesn’t move. You start thinking not in “pushing things ahead” but making space for things to move along.

I can’t tell you what a revelation this was to me, and it took me awhile to realize just how much I learned. It really started when I had a vacation weekend where no one was around and I wasn’t sure what to do. I had “space” so I not only relaxed, but I just “banged out” a lot of work and chores and the like. i would say “that’s done, I have space, what’s next” and I felt that pull and that workflow.

Later I saw it at work, where one of my teams uses Kanban. I could see flows both work and get jammed up and suddenly saw the importance of thinking in pull. Thinking in pull means keeping your workflow clear of blockages, of constantly focusing on making space and moving things along so other things can move.

This “Pull” idea is also a lot more relaxing than the endless emphasis of “pushing” things along. Pushing things along eventually creates a pileup and a wreck. Thinking in “Pull” means making things run smoothly – and getting more done in the end.

So try this, whether you use the same techniques as me, different ones, or are just trying to be more productive. Focus on “pull,” on keeping your workflow clear of blockages. Move along the thing closest to done first, limit what you have in progress, and see what happens when you open up space for yourself.

(By the way I do plenty of books for coaching people to improve in various areas, which may also help you out!)

– Steve