Jory MacKay
Jory is a writer, content strategist and award-winning editor of the Unsplash Book. He contributes to Inc., Fast Company, Quartz, and more.
April 01, 2019 · 12 min read

What is a Workflow? How to Create a Winning Workflow for Your Process

What is a Workflow?

There's a quote most commonly attributed to Einstein that says "insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." If that's true, then most of us should be put in a straightjacket.

It's crazy to keep doing the same things over and over, yet we do this every single day at work. We do the same steps, go through the same process, and start from scratch expecting something different to happen when we could save hours a week implementing workflows.

Wait. What is a workflow, you ask? They're one of the most powerful productivity boosters you have in your project management arsenal.

Let's dive into the basics of what a workflow is, when and where to use them, and then look at some real-world examples of how they can help streamline and optimize your workday.

What is a workflow? How processes help you work smarter, not harder.

Simply put, a workflow is a clearly defined, sequential process of the optimal way to get things done.

What sort of "things"? Well, anything really! You can have a workflow for defining milestones, getting through your to-do list, writing content, or dealing with your inbox. Any place where there is an optimal flow between steps, colleagues, tools, or processes is a candidate for a workflow.

When you put it like that, however, it doesn't sound very exciting. Yet, like most productivity tips, creating workflows are small changes that bring about huge results.

As Shane Parrish, founder of Farnham Street explains:

"While we like to think of exceptionally successful people as being more talented than we are, the more I looked around, the more I discovered that was rarely the case."

Instead, Parrish says success comes down to one thing: eliminating the unnecessary from our lives. We only have a limited amount of energy each day (not to mention time), and the more we're able to streamline how we work, the more time and energy we have for thinking, strategizing, and doing the work that matters.

The workflow creation and documentation checklist

The best thing about workflows it that you probably already use a number of them each day without even realizing it. Any time you've gone through a task and optimized each necessary step, you've created a workflow.

At each transition point, you can confidently say what's supposed to happen next. No more starting from scratch or doing the same thing expecting different results. Even better, you can transfer this knowledge into a checklist or template so others can follow it.

However, while some of your workflows might be pretty straightforward (like paying an invoice), they can quickly get complex. Whole business workflows like planning and executing Agile sprints involve multiple meetings, managing full teams, project management, looking after stakeholders, and knowing how to react to unexpected situations.

In this case, creating and documenting the optimal workflow means knowing a few key pieces of information:

What Who How

  1. What exact job is being done? Are there any dependencies you need to consider?
  2. Who is responsible for each step?
  3. How long will each task take?

And that's really it. Answer those questions and structure them into a chart or process and you have a workflow.

Workflow examples: 7 places when and where to utilize workflows

So far, this has all been pretty high-level. But the beauty of workflows is that they're the opposite of high-level! They're not lofty goals or strategies that you need to speak C-Suite to understand, but step-by-step guides.

Even a complex workflow tells you exactly what to do next (If yes, then X; If no, then Y). Take this gigantic workflow diagram by designer Jessica Hische on Should I work for free? (Spoiler alert: The answer is always NO).

To get your mind thinking of all the places you can start to refine and document your own workflows, let's look at a few common workflow-worthy scenarios:

(Note: These are all just starting places for you to develop your own workflows. They outline the high-level steps, but how you optimize and assign tasks to different people will depend on your own experience and business goals.)

7 Places where to utilitz workflows

1. Personal productivity workflows

There are so many places you can create workflows to boost your personal productivity. From how you triage, organize, and work through your inbox, to how you set meetings, write to-dos, and track your progress. But one of the most powerful workflows you can create is a daily template.

In our guide to personal productivity, we wrote how getting more done each day comes down to a simple formula: More focused time spent on meaningful work = more results in less time. This all starts with what's on your calendar.

A daily schedule template means each block of your day is assigned to something–meaningful work, breaks, email, project management. It's a visual guide of how you flow from task-to-task throughout the day.

If this sounds too constricting, just think about the opposite. An empty calendar is just waiting to be filled with low-value work, meetings, and calls. But, once you have your template in place, your workflow for scheduling your day might look something like this:

No more fighting priorities and wasting time with decision fatigue.

2. Task management workflow

Speaking of personal productivity workflows, another great one you can use is around task management. In short, this is how you approach projects and tasks and work them into your daily schedule.

In our article on Task Management, we explained how most projects fail in what's called "The messy middle." We know where to start and where we want to end, but how we get there is a little fuzzy.

But with the right workflow in place, you can protect yourself from hitting decision deadlock and know the exact steps to take to finish any project. Here's what that workflow might look like:

  1. Write down every task and step you can think of on a whiteboard or piece of paper
  2. Talk to colleagues or experts to fill in any blanks
  3. Break large, multi-step tasks down into single steps
  4. Group tasks into milestones
  5. Prioritize tasks by most important
  6. Schedule each task on your daily schedule

3. Setting meetings workflow

Most of us don't have a workflow in place for how to plan and run efficient meetings. And so instead, we show up, talk over each other for an hour, and end by planning a follow-up meeting. Not very efficient.

But with a meeting workflow, you know exactly what needs to get done to get the results you want (i.e. a decision).

Here's a very simple workflow you can use to save everyone time:

  1. Send meeting invites for the minimum time (people can request a longer meeting if they think it warrants it)
  2. Create a meeting agenda and distribute to everyone beforehand
  3. Run through agenda while sticking to the schedule
  4. End meeting with a clear next step
  5. Follow up with an email outlining what happened and expectations

No more fumbling through never-ending meetings. Each one starts with a clear plan and ends with action items for everyone involved.

4. Sprint planning workflow

If your team uses Agile project management, you probably have a ton of workflows already in place around how to plan, prioritize, and build features. One of the most important ones is your sprint planning workflow.

For the unfamiliar, Agile sprints are a collection of defined development tasks that take place over a specific period of time. At the end of the sprint, you should have a piece of working software ready for review and be able to plan the next steps.

With all the moving parts that take place in software development, having a clearly defined workflow for sprint planning is pretty important. Here's what a basic one looks like:

  1. Review your product roadmap to make sure you're focusing on moving the product vision forward
  2. Groom product backlog and update user stories
  3. Propose a single sprint goal and backlog
  4. Set agenda for the sprint planning meeting

At the sprint planning meeting, you'll have another specific workflow to make sure you get exactly what you need at the end of it. Here's what this could look like:

  1. Break down user stories into technical tasks
  2. Revisit your definition of done
  3. Clarity acceptance criteria
  4. Ask development team to agree on their capacity for the sprint
  5. Get verbal commitments for everyone

5. Feature prioritization workflow

As we said earlier, anywhere you go through a set of specific steps is a good candidate for a workflow. Even better, is anywhere you're more likely to get stuck.

There are fewer places where you'll come up against more friction than when prioritizing which features to build next. Feature prioritization is the backbone of any good software team. Yet it's hard to choose the best idea out of a list of already good ones.

But with a clear workflow in place, you'll have a process for determining what should be done right now. We wrote a whole guide to Feature Prioritization, however, here's the high-level rundown:

  1. Group features into themes to avoid choice paralysis
  2. Break down features by feasibility, desirability, and viability
  3. Score options on an Effort/Impact scale
  4. Go deeper with the RICE method
  5. Use a priority scorecard to score features by your own custom criteria
  6. Look at your constraints to make a final decision

Each one of these steps has their own associated workflow, but the goal here is to give you a simple step-by-step guide to go from "I don't know what to do!" to "Here's the best option for us right now."

6. Bug tracking workflow

Another decision moment that's a good place to have a defined workflow is how you deal with bugs. Why? Well for one, buggy software makes your customers start looking for better alternatives, can kill your reputation, and, worst of all, can take up hours of development time that could've been put towards building new features.

So what does a bug tracking workflow look like? Again, in its simplest form, tracking and dealing with bugs follows a few simple steps:

  1. Capture bugs both internally and externally
  2. Triage your backlog of bugs
  3. Prioritize by true importance and time commitment
  4. Assign bug fixes to teammates
  5. Track bug fixes in your project management tool
  6. Push the fixed code to deployment

7. Creating a scope of work

Many businesses struggle with properly working with outside contractors and agencies. They have a high-level idea of what they want to be done but when it comes to the details the project gets derailed.

In this case, a workflow on creating a scope of work—the agreement you send to an outside agency or contractor for work to be done—can be a huge benefit. We wrote a full guide explaining how to write a scope of work, but here's a simple workflow you can follow to make sure you're hitting all the key parts:

  1. Write your introduction and overview to the project
  2. List objectives
  3. Write the high-level scope of what is to be done (i.e. "Design and develop our new website")
  4. Create a task list
  5. Include the project schedule and milestones
  6. Define deliverables
  7. Add details on project management (payment, reporting, and terms)
  8. Finish with the success criteria and signoffs

Using workflows in your project management: Agile, Kanban, and other workflows

If it isn't clear by now, workflows basically define every aspect of your work. And many of the project management strategies and methodologies you follow on a day-to-day basis are just a collection of workflows that have worked for people in the past. Agile, waterfall, Kanban… these are all collections of processes that have helped companies demystify the question: How do we build this product?

As a project manager, having good workflows in place takes the pressure off of figuring everything out, and allows you to empower your team to focus on the work that matters most. With good workflows, you improve your team's productivity through:

  1. Improved processes: Everything moves more smoothly when people know what they need to do. Good workflows bring gains throughout the entire development process.
  2. Clearer responsibilities: Once you have a project workflow agreed upon and in place, it's much easier to assign tasks and responsibilities to individual teammates.
  3. Better deadline prediction: Knowing who is doing what and when can help you give a more confident answer about deadlines.
  4. More visibility for stakeholders: A workflow is a map that can be read by anyone involved in the project. Rather than lengthy updates, you can show them where you are and what's happening next.
  5. Identifying risks: By mapping out tasks to a workflow in advance, you can see where you're most likely to come up with issues or where you don't know what to do next. Before you even start.

In short, workflows are your way of optimizing the resources you have and keeping everything moving smoothly throughout a project. Think about your Agile workflows. In a nutshell, managing an Agile team comes down to a specific workflow:

  1. Set vision with a strategy meeting
  2. Build out your product roadmap
  3. Create a release plan
  4. Plan your sprints (which we went over earlier!)
  5. Keep your team on track with daily standups
  6. Review sprint
  7. Plan your next steps with a sprint retrospective

Again, each of these steps has their own workflows and processes. But the same sort of high-level flow can be made for any project management methodology you choose. It's simply a visual roadmap that tells you where to go next so you don't get stuck. Ever.

Creating a project workflow in Planio that will save your team hours a week

Workflows can get complex. Especially when you move from the examples we've given and into ones that involve your entire team. Luckily, project management tools like Planio are specifically developed to make it easier to define and stick to your workflows.

As an example, let's run through how to create a content calendar workflow in Planio to show just how powerful and easy this is.

Start with the building blocks of any good workflow

Let's say like most companies, you want to bring attention to your brand by publishing content on a blog or on your site. But then you realize that you have to wrap your head around dealing with multiple authors, guest posts, editing, rejecting content, adding images, optimizing for SEO, and publishing schedules…

Sounds complicated, doesn't it? Not if you create a workflow for it. This takes a bit of upfront investment, but the payoff is worth it. (Plus, once you get the hang of this it's the same flow that can be used for all sorts of projects, like design work, working with outside contractors, and anywhere else where a piece of content is moving through phases).

Start with the basics: what you're doing, who's doing it, and what their individual responsibilities are.

Planio lets you create custom trackers, which are basically just special, customizable issues—things like tasks, software bug, customer feedback, or even vacation requests.

Each issue you associate with the tracker has a status that explains what state it's in. The defaults are Open, In Progress, Waiting for Review, or Closed, but you can create custom ones for the steps people go through as they work through your workflow (like Pitched, Writing, Editing, and Published).

Lastly, every Planio user can be assigned different roles for different projects. So, you might be a manager, staff, or client (or more than one!) These roles determine what you can and can't do or see.

Your workflow is a combination of all these different tools. With a little bit of upfront investment, you can create projects that specifically allows your teammates to only see certain tasks (that are connected to their workflows) and only take specific actions that will move them to the next step in their workflow.

Set up a new tracker for your Content Calendar

With the basics in place, let's set up our Content Calendar project and define our workflow.

Start by creating a new tracker through Your avatarAdministrationTrackers, then click on New tracker. Let's name it Article.

Next, select Open as the Default Status (so each new issue starts as open) and uncheck the Issues displayed in roadmap checkbox as you want to keep your content calendar separate from the rest of your product roadmap.

Finally, check all the Standard fields you want to see in the issues you create for this tracker (i.e. your articles), like Assignee, Category, Start date, and Due date.

Creating a tracker for content calendar articles

Next, create custom statuses for where your content is in the pipeline

You'll want your content calendar to have custom statuses that reflect the work that's being done. So to do that, head to Your avatarAdministrationIssue statuses and click New Status. Uncheck the Add to all workflows box and then hit Create.

Creating a status for content calendar articles

We'll want to create specific statuses for this workflow like Pitched, Approved, Rejected, Research, Writing, Editing, Design, Published. For Rejected and Published we will check the Issue closed checkbox as these statuses mark possible ends of a workflow.

Define the roles of each person (editor, writer, guest author)

Let's talk about who is going to be doing the work. To make sure your content calendar workflow moves smoothly, you'll only want certain people to be able to change statuses, approve or reject ideas, and assign issues.

Head to Your avatarAdministrationRoles and permissions. The basic roles your Planio account comes with are Manager and Staff, but again, let's add some custom ones using New role. I'd suggest Guest Poster, Writer, and Editor.

Creating a new role for the content calendar

For each new role, make sure they can View calendar and then add the specific Issue tracking permissions you want them to have. The selection in the screenshot should work fine for our case.

Setup your content creation workflow

Now it's time to define the workflow you'll be using. This is where all the prep work comes together.

Head over to Your avatarAdministrationWorkflow. Let's start by selecting the Writer role and our Article tracker. Uncheck the Only display statuses that are used by this tracker checkbox and click Edit.

Setting up a content calendar workflow

Here, you can define all the status transitions that people with this role can do. For instance, you can make it so your Writers can only create issues as Pitched, while Editors can Approve or Reject them and change their status to Editing and finally Published.

Put it all together in a new project

Finally, let's build the actual content calendar we'll use to track what we're working on! Here's the steps you need to take:

  1. Create a new project (ProjectsNew project…)
  2. Name it Content Calendar
  3. Disable all apps except for Issue tracking and Calendar
  4. Select only your Article tracker
  5. Click Create

That's it! Users can now pitch content ideas that will show up here, while editors can move them through the workflow.

Creating the content calendar project

Even better, you can switch to the Calendar tab in your project to see all the posts that have been pitched and when they're scheduled for.

Bonus: Use the Agile board to move your articles through the workflow

Since issues, Agile, and the calendar are all connected in Planio, you can also install Agile within the Apps tab of your Content Calendar project and you'll get a nice visual board of all your articles and the status they're in.

Agile board of content calendar

You won't always know when to use a workflow. But once you start, you'll see them everywhere.

Hopefully, this gave you a good idea of what a workflow is and how you can use them in your personal life and business. But if you're still a little lost on where to use them, that's OK.

In fact, one of the best ways to start using more workflows is to just be more conscious of the steps you're taking each day. Whenever you're going through a task, look at the flow of things. What happens next? Who is responsible for what? Note wherever there's friction or you're unsure of where to go next. Over time, you'll develop a workflow that makes the most sense for you.

And that's the key too. While workflows help you get more done in less time, it doesn't mean that you should give yourself fully into them. Workflows are always developing as you test, iterate, and try new things. Maybe a new team member gets added or you adopt a new tool. Each change to your business is an opportunity to refine your workflows and make them better.