Without structure, there will be disorder. Yes, this may be stating the obvious, but what’s not obvious is how to create a path to order.
If you read the first blog in this series, you understand that process matters and is, as counterintuitive as it seems, a driver of innovation.
Business processes are not just project management tools. They transcend individual projects and use cases and keep your business adaptive and competitive. However, generating processes from disarray requires a deliberate strategy.
Here, we’ll talk about a powerful process generator: workflows. They’re commonly referred to but aren’t always implemented well. Whether you’re looking to set up your first workflow or revamp existing ones to be more efficient, this step is crucial.
Workflows are a systematic and repeatable pattern of activities for completing tasks, solving problems and optimizing processes. But they should be a lot more than that. Ideally, they’re the circulatory system of your business.
From the way you handle client calls to how you complete invoicing and conduct post-mortem project reviews, workflows dictate pace and encourage flow for your team members. No stage of work should exist in a vacuum, especially in professional services, where the client is downstream and feels the effects of every oversight and hiccup.
Workflows aren’t things you can set and forget. Central to an effective workflow is the iterative process: a feedback loop that allows for continual improvement.
The concept of iteration is deeply embedded in the everyday functioning of a service business, especially on the project side. Let’s say you run a marketing agency and you’re rolling out a digital campaign. Post-launch, your team gathers data on engagement rates and overall performance. Instead of just filing these numbers away for monthly reporting, you use them to tweak the content or targeting mid-campaign.
You probably use iteration often to ensure that your clients are satisfied, but are you using it to its fullest internally?
With quantitative metrics and qualitative feedback from stakeholders, you can iterate workflows, refining them over time to patch up weaknesses and proactively solve problems. This commitment to evolution is what keeps your business ahead of the curve in operational efficiency.
Time stands still for no company ... Feeling great about the way things work today doesn't mean that your approach will be the simplest and best way to operate tomorrow.
- Mike Paton and Lisa González
Repetitive tasks are inevitable in life and work, but they don’t have to be static. You may take your dog for a walk every morning and sometimes choose to go a different route. You’re accomplishing the same outcome, but you may get something new out of each small change: a different view, a chance to run into a new neighbor or a few hundred more steps.
Embracing variability and seeking fresh perspective from routine actions is how you turn administrative burdens into opportunities. Consider something your team does frequently, such as entering data in a CRM. On the surface, it’s a straightforward task that seems unvarying. By establishing a process around it and integrating new client database tools, experimenting with automation or creating incentive programs for error-free work, you’ll break the monotony and improve data quality. What was once a mundane task becomes a strategic asset that can add real and unexpected value.
When you think of workflows, you might immediately picture a simple workflow diagram. These are foundational, but before you even structure your workflows on paper, you need to dive deeper to ensure you’re standardizing the tasks and actions that will have the biggest impact.
Use this three-step method inspired by Paton and González.
Start with pinpointing tasks that follow a consistent pattern. If you’re in consulting, this might be the process of client intake or project planning. For an IT business, it could be an initial systems assessment.
Next, write down how this task gets accomplished now. Then, walk between each step and act as the connector. Where are the inefficiencies? Are there unnecessary or missing steps? Streamlining isn’t about cutting corners; it’s about ensuring every workflow step is purposeful.
This is the documentation phase. Your streamlined workflow will be the new standard. For example, building a new approval workflow may mean creating new internal forms for team members to communicate with one another more easily.
It might seem tedious to undergo a multi-step review for every task, but it’s an ironclad way to create workflows that stick. Getting each person involved in reworking their team’s workflows will also encourage them to evaluate their personal habits and even create their own workflows.
It’s likely that you’ll discover you had previously established processes for some tasks but not all. If you acknowledge that new workflows should be iterative and that business environments are dynamic, existing workflows can’t be exempt from your new process initiative.
Instead of taking the old “if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” mindset, you should assume there’s always a better way, no matter how minor the change.
In practice, this means looking at the things that feel cumbersome to change. Your accounting firm might not have changed tax client onboarding in years. The expectation that annual tax filing will be a chaotic period may have prevented you from acknowledging bottlenecks until now. When you take the time to optimize how you gather clients’ key details and documents, you’ll save your team’s time and energy for offering even higher-quality tax filing and advice.
Workflow Automation: An Ally in Iteration
Automation is more than a way to generate helpful notifications. It keeps all of your standalone workflows organized in a continuous cycle. If your business isn’t already using a workflow management tool with customizable triggers and convenient templates, it’s time to look into the benefits of productivity-boosting software for each aspect of client work. Get a sense of what’s possible by exploring how Accelo users drive sales with trigger automations.
It’s normal to feel resistant to this suggested workflow review. For some business leaders, this resistance is psychological. But sometimes, there are practical obstacles standing in between your current state of fleeting success and the future state of sustainable excellence.
In the next installment of this blog series, we’re looking at the obstacles your firm could encounter as you develop a new way to create and manage workflows.
Keep up with this series and share your thoughts or questions about workflows with us on LinkedIn.