This is Your Company on Workflow

What does workflow solve? A lot, it turns out, but only if you give it the consideration it deserves

A simple, but often unacknowledged truth about the modern corporate world is that it is rife with doses of irrationality. For a segment of the economy that is supposed to operate with precision, it is surprising how many managers at enterprises across the globe lack what we call  “common sense”. Even in the best-run companies, there are times when best intentions go awry and people are left wondering, “How did we EVER get here?”

Is implementing a workflow and/or a business process easy? Not necessarily. It can, however, be simple —and simple leads to less stress, more control, and a greater likelihood of meeting expectations. “Simple” does not mean that the approach is lacking in sophistication, as simplicity is an admirable goal when pursuing a better way of doing business

We know that best-laid plans may often go astray — as competing demands can distract and turn “simple” into a multi-headed beast. Take heart. It is rare to be able to consistently adhere to defined policies and steps in the face of “unintended issues.” Our thought, however, is that it is beneficial to have a  list of considerations to discuss, in advance, with your team — so that all of you can think through, and act on, the steps necessary to prepare your workflow and its  implementation.

Here are those considerations:

First, it is important to recognize that plans are not reality. They are an effort to create an optimal future. No matter what you put into a spreadsheet, it will not likely end up exactly as planned. Different strategies may assist in the preparation (think: agile, waterfall, checklist.) Irrespective of how you do it, a good rule of thumb is to anticipate that you will encounter every possible consequence you have not considered. And, because it wasn’t something you planned for, you can expect to waste days dealing with it.

A better use of your time is to identify:

Your concept of success: This is far more than a mission statement. Implementing a workflow does not mean just arriving at a single goal. Successful implementation and management means that your company executes an infinite number of actions according to a predefined (yet flexible) framework. It does so in order to move in the direction of greater efficiency and better results. You need executive approval of what constitutes success: Is it financial, is it based on what IT can deliver, does it mean better use of employees’ time, or does it have to do with extending your business to a broader ecosystem? Perhaps it is a combination of these things. Know what it is — then drive towards that goal.

Players: Who are your primary stakeholders? What do they NEED and what are they likely to REQUEST. Those are two different things; you need to be judicious in what you agree to deliver. Part of your job will be to have people understand the nature of your project (at a macro level), not just their part in it. A myopic approach can lead to an enhanced sense of self-interest, which can lead to each person/group thinking its issues are the most important. If you ignore this, however, you will have disagreement before you even have requirements.

Risks: Doing certain things incorrectly will create major issues. Sound simple or silly? Understanding the trade-off is not enough. Not doing certain things (you will know what they are) will cause delays. Think through, in a linear and interconnected way, where the pain points are likely to be — and how you can avoid them.

Granular vs. high-level: As former Netscape CEO James Barksdale used to say, “The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.” You always need stakeholders to step back and remember the ultimate goal. You and the project team must ask yourselves repeatedly, “Is this action leading us towards our goal?” By not asking, you are more likely to move the project in an unintended direction.

Build requirements for the business and technology teams: There is a need to align business and IT goals, but reaching a successful outcome for those two sides of the house may involve different skill sets and requirements. That is perfectly normal and expected; there is a symbiotic relationship between IT and business —and ultimately they are both trying to achieve some level of complementary results. But make sure there is an effort to articulate goals and acceptable practices for achieving them from the start. By identifying, up front, where the responsibilities reside and expectations in terms of deliverables, these groups can better support one another to achieve their common goal.

Fail forward: It is easy to say that you can learn important lessons from failing, but when you have deadlines and a budget, few executives are interested in allowing you time to fail, then learn, when things need to come together. Does the workflow you create with 100% compliance reflect the requirements you had at the beginning— or does it reflect changes in your business that may have occurred along the way? Is 100% compliance with your initial requirements still valid? Seek ways to determine if certain forms do not work well with their corresponding processes. Uncover preconceived ideas as to how things are done. Are there outdated ways of doing things that should not be considered in the new environment? Do things – and do them with purpose! That will enable you to uncover your potential for failure yet the ultimate outcome will be better.

You undoubtedly want to change how your company works, in whatever form that takes. That requires thinking through many scenarios, while keeping your eyes on the prize. The prize, however, will likely change the working lives of everyone in your organization, so take care to give it the attention that all prizes deserve.