What are workflows? 7 simple steps to get started

June 17th, 202112 min read
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The term workflow is ambiguous. For some, a workflow is a process—for others, it’s a way to organize information. 

The vagueness around the term has real consequences. Lack of clarity about what a workflow is muddles the work itself, leading to an efficiency problem. For example, the average knowledge worker spends 60% of their time on work about work—things like searching for information or following up on the status of work. And yet, over one quarter of deadlines still get missed each week. Although we work hard and are busy all day long, we somehow still miss the mark and fall behind frequently.

Something isn’t quite right.

That’s where workflows—and understanding what they are—come in. Having a clear understanding of what a workflow is and how to implement one helps you effectively organize your team’s work, hit your project goals, and create lasting, effective processes. Here’s how.

What is a workflow? 

A workflow is an end-to-end process that helps teams meet their goals by connecting the right people to the right data at the right time. Once it’s set up, a workflow helps you organize information in a way that is not only understandable, but also repeatable. 

An effective workflow has seven steps, loosely arranged in three stages—planning, execution, and review:

Planning: 

1. Ideation and information gathering

2. Request intake

3. Prioritization and resourcing

Execution:

4. Development and review

5. Progress tracking

Review:

6. Approval

7. Reporting

When should I create a workflow?

Workflows are truly powerful at the team and department level. When done right, workflows provide the clarity your team needs in order to hit their goals faster. 

You can build an effective workflow for a time-based initiative with an end goal—think marketing campaigns, new employee onboarding programs, and procurement—as well as for recurring processes and evergreen work—like content calendars, IT requests, and bug tracking.

Why workflows are important

Though every workflow is unique, all workflows pull from the same building blocks, like a set of Legos. These basic components are flexible enough to fit any team or organization’s needs. The critical part is codifying your business-critical processes to create structure in your organization. When you do that, no one wonders what the next step is or who is driving which piece of the project. Eliminating that uncertainty is groundbreaking.

This level of structure can deliver tangible benefits for your team, including:

  • Streamlining coordination between project team members

  • Driving productivity gains (without sacrificing quality or costs)

  • Improving resource allocation

  • Enhancing project visibility

  • Empowering leaders to make smarter decisions, because everything is tracked in one place

  • Reducing manual information-gathering and duplicative work

  • Eliminating data silos by collecting everything in a centrally-accessible source of truth

  • Giving team members a clear sense of how their work contributes to broader shared goals and objectives

  • Reducing guesswork and unblocking team members

  • Eliminating ad hoc processes and one-off systems in place of a central hub of information

Instead of recreating the wheel every time, workflows enable teams to become impactful and adaptable in order to get their best work done. 

3 main benefits of defined workflows

A workflow might seem like a lot of work to set up, but well-defined, repeatable processes are a key driver for growth. With an effective workflow, you can eliminate work about work, ease frustrations, increase clarity, and boost engagement. The upfront investment will save you a ton of time and stress in the future.

Real-time visibility

It’s no secret that real-time, actionable insights increase team efficiency. Getting these insights can be tricky—but that’s where workflows come in.

An effective workflow connects the right people to the right information at the right time. This level of connection increases visibility within and across projects—so everyone on your team knows exactly who’s doing what by when and why it matters. In particular, this level of visibility helps you:

  • Gain real-time, actionable insights to increase team efficiency

  • Accurately plan, resource, and scale work up or down as necessary

  • Keep executive and cross-functional stakeholders up to date on project progress

  • Reduce delays and produce higher-quality deliverables

  • Get a bird’s-eye view of your project’s process in order to understand, pinpoint, and diagnose issues

Alignment within and between cross-functional teams

Clear, defined workflows empower cross-functional clarity and context across multiple teams. When you have a network of connected projects or tools, cross-functional teams clearly see the how and why behind the work that’s being done. 

Good work management tools allow you to define and share workflows, no matter what team you’re on. This creates a single source of truth for all work and data, breaking down silos between teams to empower more effortless collaboration. Plus, connecting individual initiatives to larger-scale company workflows gives team members a clear view of the work that’s most important. By making this clear to all team members, everyone can focus on the highest priority work that drives the most impact.

Read: 5 ways Asana customers break down silos in their work

Increased operational efficiency

Workflows codify processes through work request intake forms, automations, and templatized projects. By automatically connecting the right people to the right data, you improve efficiency and productivity. An effective workflow eliminates work about work to increase team velocity. When your team has clarity, they can focus on the work that matters most to drive the most impact. Plus, increasing transparency with integrations between business tools reduces context switching. 

How workflows compare to other business processes

To build a workflow, you’ll likely incorporate a variety of business processes. Here’s how workflows compare—and differ—from these practices:

Workflows vs. business process management (BPM)

A business process is a sequence of tasks. Business process management (BPM) is the practice of analyzing and improving business processes in an efficient and effective way

Workflow management is part of BPM. Workflows organize data in an understandable and repeatable way by focusing on three things: planning, execution, and review. An effective workflow is a repeatable, sustainable business process. 

Read: The beginner’s guide to business process management (BPM)

Workflows vs. checklists

A checklist or to-do list is a list of things you need to do. A checklist is simpler than a business process, since the tasks in a checklist often contain work from various initiatives—without any particular order. 

You can use checklists as part of a workflow to ensure nothing falls through the cracks. Checklists and workflows are simple but powerful tools that—when used in tandem—help your team get your best work done. Aim to include checklists in your workflow’s end-to-end process to help your team meet their goals. 

Workflows vs. Gantt charts

A Gantt chart is a visual project management tool that illustrates a project timeline as a horizontal bar chart. Each bar in a Gantt chart lays out a step in the process. The length of the bar represents the amount of time that work takes. 

Gantt charts are great visual project management tools and most commonly used for tracking time-based initiatives like an event plan or product launch. You can also build a workflow to turn a one-off project into a repeatable process for future work. If you do create a workflow for an event plan or a product launch, using Gantt charts and other visual project management software like Kanban boards can help you hit your goals faster.

Read: New to Gantt charts? Start here

Workflows vs. flowcharts

Flowcharts are a good way to visualize the steps of a process in a sequential way. For example, a flowchart can show the relationship between the five project phases or help you visualize a cause-and-effect relationship that’s impacting your project. 

At a high level, it can be helpful to visualize the seven workflow steps in a flow chart, or workflow diagram. Once you have a good sense of the main steps of your workflow, bring those processes to life with a real-time, shared work management platform.

Read: 5 project management phases to improve your team’s workflow

Workflows vs. work management

Workflows are a key part of work management—in fact, good work management tools make it easy to organize your team or department’s workflows to coordinate people and work across all levels of your organization. Ultimately, workflows power work management and ensure that everyone has the information they need to accomplish the work that matters most.

Work management is a systematic approach to orchestrating an organization’s workflows to provide the clarity teams need in order to achieve their goals faster. It’s about coordinating people and work across all levels of an organization to ensure that everyone has the information they need to do the work that delivers the most impact.

Learn more

Example workflows

Before we dive into the benefits of defined workflows and how to build your own workflow, take a look at a few example workflows.

Customer feedback workflow

  1. Ideation and information gathering: A customer submits a ticket, request, or feedback.

  2. Request intake: The request is processed in your CRM—for example, Zendesk.

  3. Prioritization and resourcing: The request is automatically routed to the appropriate team. For example, if it’s a sales request, the request is routed into Salesforce for the sales team to triage. Alternatively, tickets and feedback are routed to internal teams, who work in work management tools like Asana.

  4. Development and review: The teams work to resolve the customer issue.

  5. Progress tracking: Real-time integrations streamline and automate work between your teams. Instead of manually updating teams or duplicating work between tools, integrations like the Asana for Zendesk integration ensure your teams have the most up to date information where they work.

  6. Approval: The final solution is sent back to the customer via the customer team. If necessary, the change is documented. If the request hasn’t been sufficiently addressed, then the team loops back to step four (development and review) to take another look.

  7. Reporting: This specific ticket is tracked as part of the overall workflow process in order to measure the overall impact of the customer feedback workflow. 

Campaign management workflow

  1. Ideation and information gathering: The whole team gets together to brainstorm new campaign ideas. 

  2. Request intake: Collaborating with their team, the project leader creates briefs for all of the creative assets required by their campaigns—imagery, animations, video, content assets, and more.

  3. Prioritization and resourcing: The project leader reviews each piece of the campaign so they can understand how everything fits together before they prioritize projects and tasks. Then, the project leader creates a master campaign calendar so everyone on the team has a high-level overview of everything that’s going on in the campaign.

  4. Development and review: With your plans in place, you can press the “Go” button on creative asset production. External contributors and teammates jump into action. If creative assets need more work, the workflow loops back to the creative asset production stage.

  5. Progress tracking: While their team is working, the project leader monitors progress via a work management platform. If a teammate experiences an issue or project deliverables are delayed, they can jump in and unblock work.

  6. Approval: When everything is looking good, the project leader approves the work. The campaign goes live.

  7. Reporting: Whether a campaign is a runaway success or an underperformer, there’s always a ton to learn. The project leader dives into the data and interviews their team members to discover what worked and what they can improve on.

Objectives planning workflow

  1. Ideation and information gathering: Company leadership decides how frequently the organization will set OKRs (Objectives and Key Results). They invest in a goal management system to track their work.

  2. Request intake: The team lead, team members, and key project stakeholders collaborate to generate ideas for upcoming goals. 

  3. Prioritization and resourcing: The team lead drafts a set of objectives for the next goal period. Ideally, each objective contributes to the one above it, creating clarity and alignment.

  4. Development and review: Once they know what they’re aiming to achieve, team members can get to work. Using a work management platform, they can connect their day-to-day work to broader objectives so everyone knows what work is the highest priority.

  5. Progress tracking: While their team is working, the team lead monitors their progress. If progress slows or deadlines slip, they can drop in and clear the way. Both the team lead and team members provide regular status updates via their work management platform. 

  6. Approval: Team members finalize work as they complete it. Managers take a look, and approve or request changes as needed.

  7. Reporting: After each period, the team lead reviews their objectives. They dig into what worked and what didn’t work during the goal period. For future goals, the team will double down on their strengths and support their weaknesses.

7 steps to create an effective workflow

The seven steps to creating an effective workflow are broken into three phases: planning, execution, and review. Implementing these steps helps you organize work in a way that is not only understandable, but also repeatable. 

Why seven steps?

Think of the seven steps as a workflow template to maximize impact while minimizing work about work. Instead of starting each project with several hours—or even days—of information gathering, unnecessary meetings, and duplicative communication, workflows provide a framework for your team to get right into the action. The seven workflow steps equip your team with the data, information, and assets they need to hit the ground running. They create a clear plan of action, ensuring everyone on your team understands what needs to get done and when their deadlines are.

Workflows capture repeatable processes so you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. In order to be effective, a workflow should be created in a shared tool that tracks information in real time. 

In the example below, we’ll demonstrate how to create a workflow in Asana. If you aren’t sure how to get started, learn how workflow management software connects the right people to the right data at the right time so your teams can focus on delivering impact.

Learn more

Step 1: Ideation and information gathering

Every workflow starts with an idea. Sometimes, ideas arrive fully-formed, other times, your team embarks on a new, exciting initiative with some guiding principles. 

During this step of the workflow process, gather unstructured information and brainstorm ideas for your project. If applicable, consider any project limitations, restrictions, or requirements before moving on to the next step.

For example, let’s look at a web production workflow. The VP of Marketing approaches your creative team to fully revamp your website’s home page. They share a vision of what they want the home page to look and feel like before handing the project off. At this stage of the workflow, you and your team brainstorm some initial ideas, share inspiration from your favorite website home pages, and create very high level mockups in your brainstorming tool, Miro

Step 2: Request intake

Once you have a general idea of what you’re working on, iron out the details and project plan. At this stage of the workflow, make sure to capture any relevant data, information, or business needs. This informs the process you build, the project stakeholders you involve, and the work you ultimately deliver.

You don’t need all of these materials for every workflow—but make sure you do develop enough material to inform the rest of your project work. Eliminate the back and forth of asking for additional clarity, context, and information on work.

To continue our example of a web production workflow, you turn your team brainstorming into a creative brief. Using a work management tool like Asana, you pull in your initial Miro sketches into the brief and combine them with other project information, like your communication plan.

3. Prioritization and resourcing

Once you have your plan in place, it’s time to put it into action—and that starts with resource allocation. You need visibility into your processes to effectively prioritize and assign work based on team capacity. 

Effective workflows aren’t just about maximizing productivity and getting as much work done as possible—they’re about making space for creativity. When successfully done, workload management maximizes employee performance and melts away chaos, leaving you and your team feeling satisfied at the end of each day rather than overwhelmed.

To make this step in the workflow repeatable, you also need to automate it. Once you have a clear sense of each team member’s capacity, use workflow automation to accurately route work to the right team member. Clarify each project’s priority, and empower team members to adjust deadlines if necessary to ensure they’re getting their highest-impact work done. 

In our example, your creative team has a Creative requests project in Asana. When a request comes in, automated workflows route the work to the appropriate team member. Each initiative has an associated priority level, so team members know what they should focus their energy on. In the same tool, you also have a window into your team’s Workload, to re-assign or reschedule work as needed. 

Read: Your guide to getting started with resource management

4. Development & review

This is the meat of the “work” in your workflow—developing project deliverables, reviewing and iterating through a feedback loop, and getting feedback through stakeholder approvals. 

Without a streamlined workflow, a lot of this work is manual—and it’s hard to find the right file at the right time. A huge contributor to work about work is searching for documents or chasing approvals, so keeping this information in a centrally located tool reduces that unnecessary work for everyone on your team. 

When communication and files are all shared in the same place, team members spend less time on work about work and more time on their actual work. Then, get to action using automation to surface the information you need at the exact time you need it.

To continue our example of a web production workflow—after assigning work, your designers create a wireframe for the new homepage website in Figma, which they then attach to the project. Through Proofing, stakeholders comment on PDF files to leave specific feedback about what is and isn’t working. Once project stakeholders have signed off on the design, you can hand off the designs to the web development team—without having duplicating work. Instead, that information lives in the creative request project and in the Web production project, so everyone is operating off of the most up-to-date information. 

5. Progress tracking

A critical part of any workflow is making sure that everyone on your team is on the same page about work. Too often, data is scattered across tools—in order to report on a project’s progress, you need to toggle between tools and manually collect information in one place. But manual, duplicative work is a waste of time—and no one needs another status meeting. 

Instead, share project status updates where work happens so everyone has the context they need right where work is happening. If your project isn’t on track, your status report lets project stakeholders know about the delay—and how you’re going to resolve any blockers. 

For example, a lot of stakeholders are invested in the web production workflow—after all, this initiative was first proposed by the VP of marketing. But project stakeholders don’t need to be updated about every little detail or bump in the road. Instead, you share weekly project status updates with them, adding context and linking to tasks and milestones your team has completed. 

Read: The ultimate guide to choosing a universal reporting tool for team leads

6. Approval

Sometimes, all you need is that last, final approval—but getting approval can be tricky. Oftentimes, executive leaders are busy. Even though you only need a quick signoff from them, their time is valuable—and hard to access. Instead, an approval workflow automates this step by making it clear and easy for stakeholders to give their final blessing. 

In our example, your new home page is ready to go, but you need signoff from the VP of marketing to make the switch. So you send an Approval request—different from a regular task—to the VP of marketing. This unique notification lets them know the type of feedback you need from them, so they can quickly and easily respond accordingly. With a click of a button, you have their approval and you launch your home page on time. 

7. Reporting

Regardless of whether a project is a resounding success or runs into some bumps on the road, there’s always a ton to learn from each initiative. The last step of a workflow is to report on your progress and dive into the data to learn what worked and what can be improved. This helps you optimize future projects—or even refine your current workflow. 

To finish our example, your home page is now live—congratulations! The final step is to track how the page is doing and report on your progress incrementally. Then, the next time you need to launch a web page, draw from your learnings on this project to make that work even better. 

Building collaborative, digital workflows

Ralph Waldo Emerson famously said “Life is a journey, not a destination,” and the same is true for workflows. By focusing on and improving the process of work, you can equip team members with the tools and information they need to succeed. 

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