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Feb 02, 2023 by Aron Korenblit

Why Workflow Documentation Is Useless (and What To Do Instead)

I am back on my soapbox about great workflows. If you’re just joining, this is instalment three (Why the Problem Isn’t Your Tools–It’s You & You Don’t Understand Your Workflow being one and two respectively).

Building great workflows is hard work. I’d even go so far as to say that it’s the hardest type of work: it’s boring, you ask people hard question laying bare how little they understand their own work and it takes time to see any return.

So if you’ve been good and took the time to understand your workflow, I wouldn’t blame you to think that your job is done. But unfortunately, I hate to tell you that you haven’t started the hardest part: making sure everyone understands your workflow the same way.

Let’s use an analogy (just like in the Phoenix project, discussed in last week’s post): Jeff and Tina work on a car manufacturing line and Linda is the production manager. Jeff assembles the doors. When he’s done with a door, he places them in room A. Tina paints the doors. However, she only picks up doors in room B because that’s where everyone else on the team puts them.

These unpainted doors in room A are a problem, but whose fault is it? Jeff is new, how was he to know that painted doors go to room B? Linda points to rule 4 on page 12 (of 38) of the onboarding document which Jeff obviously glazed over as he was busy reading up on the 50 other onboarding documents he was sent.

The point I’m trying to hammer home is that understanding your workflow isn’t enough: everyone has to understand what their role in the workflow is.

Lauren knows the workflow but that doesn’t make Jeff put doors in the right room.

These types of mistakes are easy to spot in a production line (why is there a pile of unpainted doors in room A?). Not so much when it comes to digital workflows where work isn’t visible.

How to increase shared understanding of a workflow

The reflex here is to document the workflow, write a long document explaining the whole workflow. And yes that’s a good idea! Unfortunately, few folks need to know everything. Too much is like not enough. Odds are they’ll tune it out.

Instead of long documents, it’s more effective to be proactive in explaining the workflow as they go through it. Here are some examples of how to create a shared understanding of your workflow:

Ritualize the review of the same information

If you’re on a content calendar, have a calendar that you review every week. Assume that if someone’s work is not on the calendar, it doesn’t exist. For the first few weeks–when there is no shared understanding–folks will stumble and forget to update it. After that, it becomes a ritual. There isn’t even a need to document it or explain to new team members since their output is the calendar. After a few rituals, they’ll have the shared understanding of the workflow.

Content calendar using an Airtable view
Content calendar using an Airtable calendar view

Aggressively communicate the next step

Focus showing folks the right path exactly when they need it. Just like production lines have lines drawn on the floors indicating what the next step is, create digital reminders telling folks the next step in the workflow.

You can send timely, contextualized notifications using any automation tool out there. Don’t just send “a contract is ready to be reviewed”. Provide context & what the next step is “Acepoly, a high priority lead worth 12K, needs a contract review by this Friday. Assigned reviewer is Jeff. Click here for the contract and leave any objections in the comments of the record by Friday next week.”

The reviewer may have been unaware of the workflow. But after that notification, they’ve got the context on what’s going on and what the next step is! Poof shared understanding!

To sum up, start by understanding your workflow.

Once there, shift to communicating to other their role in the workflow: where it starts, where it ends, and how they should play their part. Create rituals so everyone understands what key information needs to be correctly updated and communicate what needs to be done at the moment it needs to be done.

But for the love of God, don’t write a 30 page document no one reads.

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