Pushing vs. Pulling Work in Your Agile Project

If you’re thinking about agile or trying to use it, you probably started with iterations in some form. You tried (and might be still trying) to estimate what you can fit into an iteration. That’s called “pushing” work, where you commit to some number of items of work in advance.

And, if you have to service interruptions, such as support on previous projects, or support the production server, or help another project, you might find that you can’t “push” very well.  You have trouble predicting what you can do every two weeks. While the iteration duration is predictable, what you predict for the content of your iterations is not predictable.  And, if you try to have longer iterations, they are even less predictable.

On the other hand, you might try “pull” agile, where you set up a kanban board, visualize your flow of value, and see where you have capacity in your team and where you don’t. Flow doesn’t have the built-in notion of project/work cadence. On the other hand, it’s great for visualizing all the work and seeing where you have bottlenecks.

Push and PullHere’s the problem: there is No One Right Way to manage the flow of work through your team. Every team is different.

Iterations provide a cadence for replanning, demos, and retrospectives. That cadence, that project rhythm, helps to set everyone’s expectations about what a team can deliver and when.

Kanban provides the team a perspective on where the work is, and if the team measures it, the delays between stages of work. Kanban helps a team see its bottlenecks.

Here are some options you might consider:

  • Add a kanban board that visualizes your workflow before you change anything. Gather some data about what’s happening. Are your stories quite large, so you have more pressure for more deliverables? Do you have more interruptions than you have project work?
  • Reduce the iteration duration. Interruptions are a sign that you might need to change priorities. Some teams discover they can move to one-week iterations and manage the support needs.
  • Ask questions such as these for incoming non-project work: “When do you need this done? Is it more or less important or valuable than the project work?”
  • Make sure you are a cross-functional team. Teams can commit to finishing work in iterations. A group of people who are not interdependent have trouble committing to iterations.

Teams who use only iterations may not know the workflow they really have, or if they have more project or support/interrupting work. Adding an urgent queue might help everyone see the work. And, more explicit columns for analysis, dev & unit test, testing, waiting (as possibilities) in addition to the urgent queue might help the team see where they spend time.

Some teams try to work in two-week (or longer) iterations, but the organization needs more frequent change. Kanban might help visualize this, and allow the team to change what they commit to.

Some POs don’t realize they need to ask questions about value for all the work coming into a team. If the work bypasses a PO, that’s a problem. If the PO does not rank the work, that’s a problem. And, if the team can’t finish anything in a one-week iteration, that’s a sign of interdependencies or stories that are too large for a team. (There might be other problems. Those are the symptoms I see most often.

You can add a kanban board inside your iteration approach to agile. You might consider moving to flow entirely with specific dates for project cadence. For example, you might say, “We do demos every month on the 5th and the 19th of the month.” That would provide a cadence for your project.

You have choices about pushing work or pulling work (or both) for your project. Consider which will provide you most value.

P.S. If you or your PO has trouble making smaller stories, consider my workshop, Practical Product Ownership.

3 Replies to “Pushing vs. Pulling Work in Your Agile Project”

  1. The difference between a push and a pull system is how the units of work are assigned to the person who will be carrying out that unit of work. The concept of push and pull aren’t unique to software development – the idea originates from logistics and supply chain management.

    1. Syed, you are correct. The idea of signaling for more work, the kanban, is from manufacturing originally, I believe. Certainly the idea of pulling is not limited to manufacturing or logistics/supply chain.

      You said something quite interesting about how work is assigned to people. In software, we have the possibility of pairing, swarming, or mobbing over the work. (I have an earlier post about how team work helps improve products.)

      In software, I recommend against taking work in your expertise. If someone builds too much expertise, they become a bottleneck. You can see this in any kind of a board, and it’s easier to see in a kanban with WIP limits.

      Thanks for your comment.

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