What is the difference between Personal Kanban and the Personal Agility System?  


Peter Stevens
Member Admin
Joined: 4 years  ago
Posts: 104
16/06/2020 8:06 am  

I am often asked how the Personal Agility System (“PAS”) compares to Scrum or Personal Kanban. It may surprise you, but I was doing Personal Kanban before I created PAS. I then tried using Scrum on my life; that was closer to what I needed, but Scrum didn't really solve my challenges either. So my “personal Scrum” evolved and became “my personal Agility” and eventually, The Personal Agility System™.

Last week, Jim Benson opened the Agile Virtual Summit by explaining Personal Kanban, and @lyssaadkins closed the summit by sharing her voyage with PAS. This provided an amazing opportunity to learn about Personal Kanban from its inventor and to see how one of the world's leading coaches interprets Personal Agility.

What do PAS and Personal Kanban have in common?

Since I had previously applied Personal Kanban (actually, Desktop Kanban, with sticky notes wrapping around my laptop), it is not surprising that the two approaches have a lot in common.

According to Jim Benson, Personal Kanban is based on two Lean principles: 1) Visualize your work, and 2) Reduce your Work in Progress (WIP). A Kanban Board enables visualizing. It contains three columns, Options, Doing and Done.

PAS applies visualization and limiting WIP too, because, well, they work. In addition, the “What Really Matters” column in the PAS Priorities Map makes key priorities visible, and color coding matches tasks to the priorities they support.

Multitasking is bad for performance so it is discouraged in both frameworks. It is in handling the “Options” column where the two approaches diverge.

Personal Agility is about you and who you want to become

Personal Agility starts with an assumption and a metaphor. The assumption is that there is too much to do and not enough time to do it. There are too many options. The practical consequence is that some things will get done soon, some might get done later, and some won't get done at all.

Urgent items tend to get done quickly, while important things without a pressing deadline often get forgotten. The items you are most likely to forget are related to your long-term goals, the ones you most want to achieve!

This is where I realized that Personal Kanban was not solving my problem. I did not need help getting things done or reducing my WIP. I needed help to limit the size of the backlog and focus on the right things. What items should be allowed in? Which actions should be done quickly? Which should be deferred or not done at all? How come I am busy but not having the success I want?

Personal Agility helps you figure out your vision and makes it easier to act in accordance with it. PAS gives you reasons to say yes or no.

The metaphor is navigation, like for a ship on the high seas. The destination is some far-away location that represents your long-term goal – we call this 'Jamaica.' Winds and storms represent distractions and interruptions. In a storm, you may be busy keeping the boat from sinking. The storm may blow you off course. If you are off course but still want to get to Jamaica, the response is to turn back on course.

PAS is like a GPS navigator for your life or project. It helps you figure out where is your Jamaica and recognize when you are drifting off course.

The Personal Agility Attitude

As Jim Benson explained it, many people have expectations on you, e.g. your employer, your spouse, your family, or the government. It seems your job is to fulfill people's expectations as best you can. These expectations manifest themselves as “Options.” Deciding what to do is reflecting on how to best satisfy those expectations. Your own desires are but one of many expectations.

This attitude smells passive, and is reminiscent of the victim role in Karman's Drama Triangle. “Poor me, I don't have much to say about it,” is what it seems to say.

PAS steers you away from victimhood. The equivalent of the Options column is called “Possibilities” – and contains the answers to the question, “What could you do?”

PAS encourages you to perform triage on your possibilities. What's important? What is urgent? What will make you happy? This enables you to prioritize items that don't have an immediate deadline or that you do purely for your own benefit. Based on your answers, you choose what you'd like to accomplish in the upcoming week. It's your boat. Take command and set your course.

Actively deciding what to prioritize puts you in charge. This change from victimhood to leadership appears frequently in Personal Agility case studies.

Dealing with Distractions and Interruptions

No plan for the day survives the first call from a customer! – Larry Pakieser

In Personal Kanban, you write your options on cards. Then look at your options, and reflect on the complexity of each task, what relationships are involved, when things are expected, etc. Fill up your “Doing” column, while respecting the work in progress (“WIP”) limit. Jim's examples set the WIP limit to three, which means that only three tasks may be in progress at a time. Other tasks have to wait until one of them is done.

Sequencing is determined when a slot opens opens up in Doing. When you move a card to Done, you can pull a card into Doing. When Doing is full, you concentrate on getting those things done.

What happens when something unexpected comes up? Jim Benson has written a lot about this topic, but I couldn't find a simple solution in Personal Kanban. He does value focus, so I expect the answer is to push back on unplanned work. Moving something from Doing back to Options seems like tacitly raising the WIP limit. I have reached out to him and hope to have an update soon.

In Personal Agility, the basic idea is to be aware of how what you are doing relates to what you care about. When deciding how to spend your time, be clear on what matters and why. The weekly “Celebrate and Choose” lets you to reflect on what you've accomplished – it is probably different that what you expected – and to choose items that serve a purpose that matters.

Personal Agility recognizes that life happens faster than you can plan. You can say no to unexpected requests. You could decide to deal with them right away. You're the captain of the boat so you get to decide the right response. Whichever you choose, celebrate what you get done!

Personal Agility helps you handle interruptions and distractions. The PAS Priorities Map has a This Week column and a Today column. This Week contains the items you'd like to accomplish this week. It represents your course. The Today column in the PAS Priorities Map has a WIP limit of one. If you only finish one thing today, what should it be? Put it in the Today column.

What happens when your phone rings, and it's your boss, a customer or a family member with something urgent? If you decide to do it, that's okay. Depending on who asks, you might not have much choice. When you finish dealing with the issue, record it in the Done column, then go back to the task in Today. Note the detour and resume course to Jamaica.

What happens if a notification or a link in your browser leads you astray? When you're ready, look in the Today column! Being easily distracted is often a sign that you need a break, so maybe some rest is advisable. You may even want to silence notifications or install an ad-blocker!

Personal Agility makes it easy to remember what you want to be doing. Personal Agility helps you set a course and hold the course.

What are the key differences

In the following table, I have tried to identify the characteristics that differentiate Scrum, Personal Kanban and the Personal Agility System from each other.



Personal Kanban


High Level Concept

Scrum is a simple, team-based framework for solving complex problems.

Personal Kanban is a lightweight and simple system to manage your professional tasks as well as your life tasks.

The Personal Agility System is a simple coaching framework to help you achieve things you care about.

Intended Scope

Teams creating products for a company or client

Individuals organizing themselves (at work?)

Transformational im­provement in life / work

Basic Principles

Inspect & Adapt
Empirical Process Control

Visualize Work, Limit Work in Progress

You have too much to do. Clarify your vision, prioritize accordingly.

Practitioners Goal

Deliver value to customers/stakeholders

Satisfy the expectations from those around you

Do more that matters. Achieve long-term goals

Role of Vision

Required, but not specified how to create one

Not part of the method

What really matters guides priorities for choosing tasks

Essential Tools

Product and Sprint Backlogs, Roles and Events, Increment, Definition of Done

Kanban Board, WIP Limits

Six Powerful Questions, PAS Priorities Map and Breadcrumb Trail

Role of the Framework

The Scrum Guide defines Scrum and a team should strive to do Scrum as described

PK is a place to start. PK is there to help you.

PAS is a place to start. The tools of PAS are there to help you.

Handling interruptions and distractions

Changing the sprint goal is not allowed. Scope changes are possible but discouraged. Unplanned work is an impediment.


Recognize them. Say no to unimportant stuff. Be forgiving if you get blown off course. Then get back on course.

I want to emphasize there is no “good” or “bad” here. Each approach is simple, easy to understand, and works well in the context for which it is intended. They help you tackle hard problems.

What are the biggest differences? I see three key areas:

  1. The importance of vision

  2. The attitude that Personal Agility encourages

  3. The clear, pragmatic approach to dealing with interruptions and distractions

If Lean is about optimizing the work, then Personal Agility is about you. If Scrum is about producing value for a customer, then Personal Agility is about investing your time in things you care about.

Personal Agility is about transformation. If you have a dream, the Personal Agility System can help you make it come true.

Emergence and the role of coaching

The Personal Agility System is not a process to follow nor a tool to use. At its heart, PAS is a series of Powerful Questions to ask and discuss. Although you could do it alone, the transformational power really emerges when you work with someone else.

Maria and I have observed (and at least in my case, experienced) that if you are doing Personal Agility by yourself, you can lose focus on What Really Matters. You move things from waiting to working to done. The hamster is busy. The wheel spins. You're doing a lot, but somehow you're not getting the right things done.

To get the most out of the Personal Agility System, I would encourage you to work with a celebration partner. This could be a coach, a staff member, a colleague, a friend or your spouse. Their impulses can inspire you to rethink your priorities so something new can emerge. We have seen many people become transformed, energized, successful and happy through Personal Agility, more often than not with the help of a coach.

Individuals and interactions between them are the basis of emergence. With its coaching approach based on Powerful Questions, the Personal Agility System not only helps you get better at getting things done, it enables something new and better to emerge.


(c) 2020 Peter Stevens. All rights reserved. Not for publication without permission. 

Edits: fixed formatting issues

This topic was modified 3 months  ago 6 times by Peter Stevens


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