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You’re no longer a startup, even though you work like one. The Sales & Marketing team is piling on the contracts to the point where the Deliverable team now calls them the S&M team (with a sneer). Morning meetings are a mess.
You are at the epicenter of a swarm of activities with different deadlines and different frontline owners. Where does that leave the overall time committed to the client?
The primary deliverable is lost under sub deliverables, each under a discrete team which has evolved its own metrics. Interdependent tasks are the subject of frequent blame games and muddy the review meetings.
It was never like this when you began in that coffee shop all those years ago. Then funds were raised, as were the stakes. The team grew, got an office, team picnics were a blast. But as the client list swelled, so did internal noise. “Every company goes through this, team leaders need time to settle”, you tell yourself. But it doesn’t.
Even when most of the teams seem to deliver on their numbers the company seems to be out of sync with the roadmap. Your oldest client even said that between the Delivery and Service teams, it feels like they’re working with two different companies and not in a good way. Time out!
The title of this article is a spoiler for the scenario that I’ve described above. Yet it is an inevitable rite of passage for a majority of the companies’ life-cycle. Balance and sanity often come by way of sensible workflow design. Maybe it starts with an external consultant. Maybe an internal cross-team center of excellence. However it comes, it brings with it the flavor of synergy that reminds you why you expanded from a 3 member founder team to a 50 member (and growing) family.
In this article we will talk about, wait for it, Workflow design. What it means, what it is made of and how it looks like in practice.
The purpose of the above narrative is to serve as a warning against unconscious growth. It is a consequence of the mentality of expecting a linear relationship between team size and output.
Later in the article I will illustrate the fundamentals of workflow design and suggest some of the online tools available. Going forward, this blog will provide more workflow design case-studies spanning different structures and fields.
Let’s start with the basics.
What is Workflow Design?
Workflow Design is the act of consciously crafting the path of activities to maximize efficiency, deliver consistent responses and align with common objectives. Let’s break that down.
“Consciously crafting the path of activities” implies that it is a deliberate practice. Pen meets paper in a meeting room with team members. Consensus emerges on how typical tasks would run their course through the organization. Protocols are placed on how tasks would be handed off across teams. Systems and fail safes are devised and tested to ensure compliance. It is an iterative exercise. Meaning, periodically, pen meets paper again.
The aim is to pick each task and ask the questions:
1. How can it become more efficient than before?
2. How can we ensure consistent responses each time?
3. How does it contribute to the company’s objectives?
It doesn’t matter whether the company has 5 employees or 500. It doesn’t even matter if it is a class trying to put together its annual school festival. This is an invaluable exercise.
Why go through with it?
Besides the obvious, as Spock would say, “It’s only logical”. It is still important to ask the question, why should one pile workflow design on top of the exercises directly attributable towards delivering the company objectives? Also, is there a risk of over designing?
Let’s talk about it
- Conscious workflow design allows organizations to tackle the problems that arise with scale
- It adheres to the simple concept of “a place for everything”
- Complex tasks can be broken down into comfortable chunks
- It ensures that even in the mire of tasks, teams know how their inputs contribute to the company’s roadmap
- A transparent workflow allows companies to effectively troubleshoot derailed projects
- Yes, there is such a thing as “Over-designed”. That’s when a company’s workflow is so rigid that it stifles creativity
- A complex workflow design becomes a barrier for new team members to come up the curve
- Workflows, like any system, requires periodic updates and redesigns. Else, with changing external variables, they can become a hindrance rather than help
If you’ve gone through this section, then you understand that Workflow design is a desirable exercise. But the output is dependent on how well this exercise is understood and implemented. This leads us to ask, what is a sensible way to approach Workflow Design? Let’s delve into that.
Elements of Workflow Design
A sensible approach to workflow design starts with scheduling a focused exercise within the organization. The output of the meeting is to consciously identify standalone processes that are the fuel of the company. This could range from Employee Hiring, Employee Onboarding, Lead Capture, Lead Conversion, Order Fulfilment, Post Sales Service, New Product Development, Accounting and Compliance etc.
Once a process has been identified, break it down to the atomic unit of tasks that make up each process.
Now the real work begins. Group similar tasks into batches. Take one batch at a time and apply the two step treatment of adding rich dimensions to the tasks(s) and standardizing its journey from start to finish. This is discussed in more detail below.
Enrich the Atomic unit
(I know what that sounds like)
- Give it Purpose
- Define it sensibly
- Use Action words
- Define Parameters
- Estimated effort (Time, Sprint Points)
- Due date
- Place it in Context
- Where in the overall roadmap is it (Milestone?)
- What kind of task is it (Sales, Marketing, HR, Admin, Product, etc.)
- Assign Responsibility
- Who will own it at each stage (Person/ System)
- Who does that Person/System report to
- Append Resources
- What would one need to get it done (Documents/links, Video explainers, Online forms)
- Refer ARC model for more ideas
Trace its Journey
- Visualize it: Prepare a flowchart of
- how the task is initiated,
- how it is processed across various divisions
- what constitutes it as completed
- What happens at decision cross roads?
- Standardize changes in parameters,
- Define how dependencies and parallel tasks would behave depending on a decision
- How does it move through hierarchy
- approvals / permissions
- Where does it go when it is
- done (Learning + Archive)
- dormant (Periodic Reassessment)
- dead (Postmortem analysis)
Appending rich context around the task ensures that it is accountable and that its performance is measurable. Tracing its progress across the organization allows troubleshooting. This exercise benefits from judicious repetition as the organization grows in size, portfolio and complexity.
Need digital tools to assist in this step? Look below
Tools for Workflow Design
While it is possible and even effective to just use pen and paper to design workflows, there are tools available to do it online. This helps remote teams collaborate in the process and also saves a few steps by offering pre-built templates to get you started.
Here are some of the tools that can help with workflow design.
If you are deeply integrated with the Microsoft ecosystem, then this is probably the logical choice for you. Get it here
Simple interface, check. Popular integrations, check. Smoothly ramped pricing (starting from free), check. Get it here
Go beyond WYSIWYG workflows with automations and rules. This is project management with workflow design at its center. Check it out here
As mentioned earlier I will, going forward, provide more content around the subject of Workflow design and implementation. For teams and companies looking to engage with me for customized project management and workflow mapping, reach out to me here.
Disclosure: This article may contain affiliate links. Which means that, at no cost to you, I get a small commission if you choose to buy through my links. Please go through my Disclaimer notes for more info