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Methodologies & Frameworks
What Is A Workflow? Ultimate Guide, Examples, & Best Tools

If you look around any business, you’ll see a series of workflows working together in unison to deliver business results. The process your barista goes through to make your coffee in the morning? That’s a workflow. The email notification you receive from Netflix after they auto-charge your credit card? That's a workflow too. 

The value delivery function of each business is a series of either manual or automated workflows strung together to deliver outcomes to a customer or stakeholder. 

If you are a current or aspiring project manager or want your business to run better, this article is for you.

I have over 10 years of experience developing, managing, and iterating on workflows, and I’m excited to help guide your journey in leveraging workflows to make your life more understandable and maybe even a bit easier!

No matter how talented and experienced you may be, managing projects effectively requires organization and a well-defined workflow.

In this blog post, I'll discuss the importance of workflows in managing projects, and provide some tips on how to create an effective workflow. I'll also share some resources that can help you get started.

I’ll cover:

What Is A Workflow?

In project management, a workflow is a series of activities that are necessary to complete a task. For example, when creating a new website, the workflow process may involve designing the layout, writing the code, testing the site, and launching it live. 

Workflows can be linear or nonlinear, depending on the project. For example, a linear workflow would be something like building a house, where each step needs to be completed in order, from laying the foundation to painting the walls. 

Nonlinear workflows are more common in software development, where different features can be worked on simultaneously. In either case, having a clear workflow is essential for keeping a project on track and ensuring that all the necessary steps are completed.

While it would be beneficial to create workflows for each portion of the project at the outset (with all information about the project known at the start, ha!!), workflows can be customized to fit the needs of any project, and they can be adjusted as needed as the project evolves. 

By using a workflow, project managers can help to keep projects on track and ensure that all tasks are completed as efficiently as possible.

What Is The Difference Between Workflows & Processes?

In business, the terms ‘workflow’ and ‘process’ are often used interchangeably. However, there is a subtle but important distinction between the two. As in our above workflow definition, a workflow is a set of steps that need to be followed to complete a task. 

It can be thought of as a roadmap that outlines the necessary steps from start to finish. Workflows are typically more flexible than processes, as they can be adapted to changing circumstances. 

Processes (including business processes), on the other hand, are designed to be followed rigidly in order to achieve a specific outcome. Workflows are also generally less formal than processes, as they do not require extensive documentation or approval from multiple stakeholders. 

As a result, workflows are often faster and easier to implement than processes. However, processes can be more efficient in certain situations, such as when there is a need for strict compliance with regulations. 

Ultimately, the decision of whether to use a workflow or a process should be based on the specific needs of the situation. In my personal experience, we often have both workflows and processes documented throughout the life of a project. 

Workflows often change based on iterations or changing needs of the project or team, but processes are less likely to change, assuming they are serving a need and accomplishing their desired goal. 

What Is A Workflow Diagram?

It's no secret that the world of project management can be overwhelming. Keeping track of schedules, budgets, and resources all takes up a lot more time than you might think!

One way to make your life easier is by creating workflow diagrams that show how tasks flow from beginning-to-end along with potential bottlenecks in the process (if they exist), so those problems don't worsen over time. 

Workflow diagrams are often visualized in the format of a flowchart, either showing the process steps each work item will go through to be considered done (think Backlog, In-Progress, Done), OR the workflow diagram might describe the process at a more macro-level, showing the stages of the process of task completion or project completion overall (think flowchart).

workflow diagrams infographic
Use flowcharts and workflow diagrams to map out your processes.

Workflow diagrams are a great way to show how tasks progress throughout your process.

Some people use them as visualizations for each stage of work, while others may only want the overall picture at any given time—these vary depending on what you need! If you’ve been working on projects or processes for a while, you’ve probably seen workflow diagrams as flowcharts.

Learn more about workflow diagrams in our comprehensive guide to visualizing workflows through diagramming.

Workflow Types & Examples

If you’re ready to start documenting a workflow, it's great to start with a template or an example of something similar to what you are trying to accomplish. Not sure where to start? I love starting with a team and sticky notes on a whiteboard. 

First, we make a sticky note for each thing needing to be done or stage of the project, then we move the stickies into a thoughtful order and draw the flow of information or tasks—that’s a workflow! 

There are a few different common types of workflows, but generally, you will either be building a workflow for a process or project. Most workflows can be characterized in this way.

For example, the process for delivering customer support can be defined in a workflow, potentially similar to the one below. Other examples include marketing automation workflows or digital workflows for creating and approving digital assets.

In my practice as a project manager, I have often been called in to iterate and improve support delivery workflows. This is always the starting point for diving in on these problems with a project team–understanding the existing workflow, what’s happening, what happens next, and beyond, end-to-end. 

Example: Support Delivery Workflow

an example support delivery workflow
An example support delivery workflow (Source).

In this workflow diagram, the process can be followed to show what happens, and what happens next, all the way to case resolution, when the case is closed. This is a typical example of a process workflow. 

Activity: Think about an activity you do in your business or your life at regular recurrence. Write down the steps to complete that activity with a little bit of space in between the steps.

Next, draw squares around each step in the activity and show how you move on to the next step with arrows. Ta da!! You’ve just created your first workflow diagram. Great work!

Workflows can be documented and communicated at many different levels. For example, the below workflow shows a larger-scope of work and a higher-level process which may include smaller processes (which should also be documented, of course).

support delivery workflow example split over different support teams
In this example, the support delivery workflow is split over different support teams (Source).

This workflow diagram uses swimlanes to show which team handles various parts of the process so ownership at each step is clear. Swimlanes are not a required workflow diagram element, but they can be very helpful when mapping out a complex process that spans many teams or areas of responsibility. 

Double-clicking in on the first swimlane, we uncover a lower-level workflow describing what happens in much more detail than we can observe in the higher-level process. 

an example of a more detailed workflow working under a higher-level process.
An example of a more detailed workflow than provides more information than a higher-level process (Source).

Together, these two workflow diagrams serve different purposes as they show different levels of the process. Imagine you’re zooming in and out of the total project at the various levels, that’s how this works too! 

High-level workflow diagrams are best used with larger strategic groups to help understand project lifecycle or high-level progress where more detailed workflow diagrams are often used with the team that will be completing or trying to iterate the process. 

How Are Workflows Used In Project Management?

Sequential workflows are a useful way of illustrating the sequence and steps involved in completing any given project. In project management, workflows are diagrammed high-level processes that show the order in which tasks need to be completed. 

By outlining each project step, workflows help teams stay organized and on track. 

Project management use cases for workflows include: 

  1. Getting a project request from a project sponsor, and getting the project started
  2. Defining requirements, developing to those requirements, testing, and launching a product or service
  3. The project management lifecycle, overall. Think initiation, planning, execution, monitor & control, closure; that’s a workflow! 

In many cases, workflows can be automated, which can further speed up the completion of tasks. For example, a workflow might be created for onboarding new employees. This workflow would diagram all of the steps that need to be taken in order to complete the onboarding process, from sending out offer letters to scheduling orientations. 

By following a set workflow, companies can ensure that every new employee has a consistent and positive experience. Better yet, automating this workflow can help to reduce the amount of time that is needed to complete the onboarding process, freeing up HR professionals to focus on other tasks. 

Workflows can be used for any project, from one-time events to ongoing processes. By diagramming the steps involved in a project, teams can ensure that everyone is on the same page and that tasks are completed efficiently.

Workflow Tools, Automation, & Software

Workflow tools, including workflow automation tools, are a key part of any project manager's toolkit. Being able to document, share, and iterate on workflows visually in online tools is a critical element in managing projects with dispersed teams. Once you’ve got the basics nailed, consider what you might be able to automate. 

By automating repetitive tasks, it can free up your time to focus on more important aspects of the project. Tired of running that same report each week, saving it as a PDF and then emailing it to your project stakeholders? Automate it and do something more valuable with your time. 

Do you sometimes make little mistakes or forget a few details? Workflow automation can help to ensure that repetitive tasks are carried out consistently and correctly over time. This can be particularly important when working with large teams or on complex projects. 

By automating key project management tasks, you can help to improve efficiency and reduce the chances of mistakes being made. Ultimately, this can lead to better project outcomes and increased satisfaction for all involved.

There are many tools and techniques to help you manage workflows and automate away repetitive tasks. To learn more, check out our 10 Best Workflow Management Software List, a Process-Focused Workflow Software List, and the 10 Best Workflow Apps to Organize Your Projects & Teams. For business process management, try these BPM tools.

If you give these a try, you are sure to find a workflow tool that fits your needs and unique style. 

Let’s get to work(flow)!

It's time to get to work with workflows. Jumping in with workflows will help you understand your projects or processes better and help others understand them as well.

Get started with the activity of writing down the steps to a common activity you do, and connecting the steps with arrows showing what happens next and how to handle any exceptions.

Next, try that out for a process in your organization and consider trying out a tool to document the workflow and share it with colleagues! 

Be sure also to consider what elements of your amazing workflows could be automated, and check out the wealth of workflow-related content from The Digital Project Manager. Don’t forget to subscribe to stay up-to-date on how to do your best work. 

By Liz Lockhart

Liz Lockhart is the Sr. Director of PMO & Training at Smarsh, leading the intersection of People and Project strategies and execution. She holds a Master of Business Administration from the University of Portland and is pursuing a Doctorate in Organizational Change and Leadership at the University of Southern California Rossier School of Education. Liz holds numerous Project Management-related certifications including: PMP, PMI-ACP, CSP-SM, and a SPHR from HRCI to round out the people-focused side of her work. Liz has 15-years of experience leading people and teams across education, consulting and technology firms. The best place to reach Liz is on LinkedIn.

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