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Jan 26, 2023 by Aron Korenblit

You Don’t Understand Your Workflow

Think back to a frustrating workflow. Maybe it’s a never up-to-date Excel spreadsheet or an asset review workflow where the reviews just never end.

If you put aside the frustration, how much do you truly understand about what’s going on in your workflow? Are you clearly able to list out the steps of the workflow? Who reviews the asset? When? How many times? Who gets the final say?

In my experience, the problem isn’t the tool, it’s much worse: it’s that no one quite knows what the workflow is. How could that be?

My favorite book on this topic is The Phoenix Project. It follows the story of Bob who takes over an IT project that is at risk of derailing his company. The book dives into a lot of theory around agile and Kanban but what I remember most is Bob going around every department asking: how do you prioritize work? Where can I see what’s outstanding? What are the steps? Everyone thinks they know, but can’t quite point to any system that says “here’s what needs to be done and the steps to get it done”.

If you look at a factory line, the steps are visible: the car door starts here, gets painted there, then is stacked until the car’s body is ready. If things aren’t going well, you follow a car door along the line and see where things break down.

The challenge with knowledge work is that the work is invisible, you can’t follow a blog post around and say “aha, here is our blog post and Natalie is holding it up”.

To make knowledge work efficient, you first have to make the related work visible by creating a digital representation of your factory line. How does your blog post come into existence? What are the steps that the “blog post” takes to go from “idea” to “live on our site”.

Only when you have a clear understanding of those steps can you start looking at leveraging a tool to improve your workflow.

To understand your workflow, map it out

So how do you understand your workflow? The approach I like to take is Steps, Lists and People:

1. What are the steps your work goes through from nothing to production?

What I like to do here is imagine a production line. How do I know that I need to create this? Is it from a recurring meeting like a blog topic brainstorm or is it a requested from another team? From there, follow along and see what decisions are made. Do topics or requests get prioritized? That’s probably a step. Does someone pick up the task? Step there.

Identify as many steps as needed to go from “this is nothing” to “this is something”

2. For each one of those steps, what information do you need to proceed?

Going from one step to the next involves some kind of information or decision. I like to create a long unfiltered list of the details needed at each step. For instance, blog post title, reviewer, associated campaign, etc.

3. Who are the people involved at each step and what is their role?

Finally, and probably the most important step, who is involved at each step. Nothing breaks a workflow more than having too many, too few or the wrong people at the table. Listing them down is a good first step but you also want to understand what exactly are they responsible for. Do they have the final say or are they simply interested in knowing what’s going on?

This video from Airtable summarizes this approach quite nicely (you might recognize the voice)! Personally, I use FigJam when process mapping out workflows. Here’s the map I created for Webflow’s workflow series:

Workflow map built in Figma
Workflow map built in Figma

In fact, Kaitie Chambers from Figma will be on the stream to show how to do workflow mapping next week!

Instead of blaming your tools, concentrate your energy on understanding what steps, data and people are involved in your workflow. It’s only once you’ve put in that work, that you can effectively make your work visible in whatever tool you choose.

I’d even go so far as to say that picking your tool is the easy fun part. The crucial boring frustrating part is doing the dirty work of figuring out what your work is. However, being good at it is what differentiates good operators from mediocre ones.

Automate All the Things
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