When I talk to people and ask, “Can you tell me about how your team works?”, nine times out of ten they will use the word “workflow” in their response: “Let me explain our workflow” or “Our workflow is complex; let me start here” and so on.
How work flows in your organization is key to how things get done and looks different for everyone and every team. It could mean business processes like employee onboarding, production management like printing t-shirts, or project management like building a new website.
Each one of these is a type of workflow.
Let’s take a look at the official definition of workflow according to Wikipedia:
A workflow consists of an orchestrated and repeatable pattern of activity, enabled by the systematic organization of resources into processes that transform materials, provide services, or process information.
That’s a mouthful and, to be honest, it’s overly complicated.
Simply, if tasks are moving, you most likely have a workflow. Workflows can exist to reach some repeatable business goal (they never end) or they can exist within a project (they have a start and end date).
If tasks and data aren’t moving, you don’t have a workflow. For example, managing a task checklist or storing a repository of website links is not a workflow, but closer to just plain task management. The same would go for a project consisting only of lists of tasks.
If they aren’t moving from list to list, or step by step, it’s not a workflow.
Outside of task lists and repositories, workflows can be used to manage most types of work inside your team and organization (which we’ll cover later).
Let’s jump in and learn about the three types of workflows you can use.
The Three Types of Workflows
There are three basic workflows that you can use to manage work for your team and organization:
- State Machine Workflow
- Sequential Workflow
- Rules-Driven Workflow
These workflows are flexible and can be used independently, or in conjunction with one another. They can apply to ongoing processes in your business, one-off projects, and even your own personal task list. You can use boards to help you structure any combination of the three types of workflows.
State Machine Workflows
State machine workflows are less about following steps A through Z and more about the actual state of the product or service at each stage. The workflow progresses from state to state and it’s possible to regress back to a previous state if necessary.
To put it simply, the steps of the workflow are not in a predefined order. The order is defined by human decision.
State machine workflows can be used for many different types of applications:
- Software development
- Creative and marketing
- Order fulfillment
As an example, let’s use a contract approval workflow that has to include three approvals: one from the Sales Department, one from the Legal Department, and one from the Finance Department. Let’s assume you can get the approvals in any order you please. In a state machine workflow, it’s the user who decides which approval they want to get first. The only requirement is that, in the end, they have to get all three.
The state machine workflow will look like this:
State machine workflows are unpredictable yet, essentially, more flexible. Work can flow forward, backward, and loop around if needed. How it moves and transitions depends on how the “state” might change. The change of state can be completely random and is not dependent on any other steps.
Let’s get back to our example. Since you may have your own preferences about the order of approvals, human decision-making and logic come into play. For example, you might know that the lawyer makes a lot of changes and takes longer to approve, so you want them to be first. Or perhaps the accountant is going on vacation so they may need to approve the document before taking off.
With a state machine workflow, you don’t have to change anything because the order of approvals is not predefined.
Rindle‘s Baseline Workflow (A State Machine Workflow)
A state machine workflow is most likely going to be your default, go-to workflow. It’s the most flexible workflow option. So much so that we created a baseline workflow which we use here at Rindle, and recommend to our customers based on a state machine workflow.
Here’s what Rindle’s baseline workflow looks like:
This is a great baseline because it provides steps to help process and organize work. Since it’s a fairly generic baseline, it can be customized for almost any type of work or project.
Compared to our contract approval example, this state machine looks very different. We are not required to get four approvals in this workflow; however, work is still moving through the process and can move to any list based on human decision and what state the work is in.
For example, work can move from Backlog to In Progress when it’s ready to be worked on.
On the other hand, let’s imagine an issue was identified that was preventing a task from moving forward. In this case you would move the task from Backlog to Blocked. When the issue has been resolved, it would move back to In Progress.
We talk more about our baseline workflow in Chapter 6. We break down how to use it, how to customize it, and discuss some best practices to help you apply it to your workflow.
A sequential workflow is the sequence of processes through which a piece of work passes from undone to done, or raw to processed. In sequential workflows, work does not move backwards. It only moves forward through the sequential steps of the workflow.
Sequential workflows can be used for many different types of applications:
- Document approvals
- Creative approvals
- Production processes
Let’s use the contract approval workflow from our previous example. That workflow included three approvals: one from the Sales Department, one from the Legal Department, and one from the Finance Department. Remember that in a state machine workflow, it’s the user who decides which approval they want to get first.
In a sequential workflow, the order is predefined, requiring you to get the approvals in a specific order. For instance, first Sales, then Legal and, finally, Finance.
The sequential workflow would look like this:
Sequential workflows are predictable and provide control over the steps and order of the process. They are also flexible and can be used in different ways using boards.
In Rindle, sequential workflows can exist in a single board or as large multi-board workflows, with individual processes within each board.
Mind blown? Let’s break it down.
Single Board and Multi-Board Sequential Workflows
Using the same example, I could have a single board in Rindle called “Contract Approvals” which would house my sequential workflow. Contracts would move from list to list within a single board.
It would look something like this:
I could also make this same workflow into a multi-board sequential workflow. Contracts would move through custom workflows at each step of the sequence and move from board to board through the approval steps. To do this, each step in the workflow would become its own board:
To determine whether you should use a single board or a multi-board sequential workflow, you should ask yourself the following questions:
- What volume of work will move through the workflow?
- Does the workflow need to scale?
In Rindle, we suggest having fewer than 500 active tasks on any board (and under 250 if there are a lot of comments, attachments, or subtasks on the tasks). This will ensure optimal performance even with high amounts of data.
So, if your answer to question #1 is less than 500 (or 250 large tasks), then a single board sequential workflow is a viable option. If it’s above that threshold, a multi-board sequential workflow is required.
Likewise, if your workflow doesn’t need to scale, a single board might work best for you. If the workflow does need to scale, a multi-board workflow is a much better choice.
In the above workflow examples, we are only discussing contract approvals. If the workflow also needs to support SOW approvals, budget approvals, and estimate approvals, having a scalable multi-board workflow that can handle high throughput volume will prevent you from having to change the entire workflow later (i.e. going from single board to multi-board).
Another advantage of multi-board sequential workflows is that you can have a unique, custom workflow within each step of your sequential workflow. This allows each approval team to have its own mini process before approving and passing the contract on to the next step, or board.
In that case you could have another sequential workflow on each board like this:
Or you could have a state machine workflow, like our baseline workflow, on each board like this:
This provides more granular control over each step of your workflow and the ability to customize each step. Since sales is drafting the contract, they may have a different approval process than legal. A single board sequential workflow will not give as much flexibility and control as a multi-board sequential workflow.
Mirrors and automations solved a huge problem for our team. They allowed each team to easily field work requests from 20+ open projects and cut down on countless emails that just cluttered our inbox.
A rules-driven workflow is essentially a sequential workflow on steroids. Just like sequential workflows, a rules-driven workflow means work does not move backward — only forward through the sequential steps of the workflow. However, progress through the workflow is dependent on rules, creating the possibility for many paths with a lot more flexibility. Think production or assembly lines in a factory, but with varying levels of specifications or “rules”. (If option A is selected at step 1, then step 2 will look like this…)
Rules-driven workflows can be used for more complex sequential workflow applications:
- Complex document approvals
- Complex creative approvals
- Complex production processes
Let’s stick with our contract approval workflow as an example again. That workflow requires three approvals: one from the Sales Department, one from the Legal Department, and one from the Finance Department. Remember that in a state machine workflow, it’s the user who decides which approval they want to get first. In a sequential workflow the order is predefined, requiring you to get the approvals in a specific order.
This time, let’s assume you want to base the order on who’s available. So you want to follow a specific order but you want to add rules to keep the workflow moving. In a rules-driven workflow, you can create many paths for the work to take. For instance, first Sales - if Sales isn’t available attempt to get the approval from Legal, then finally from Finance. However, once it starts down a path, it always moves forward and it can’t be changed.
The rules-driven workflow would look like this:
Therefore, rules-driven workflows are predictable, like sequential workflows, and provide more flexibility with the addition of rules. However, as you can see from the diagram above, rules-driven workflows can get more complex and can be more difficult to modify and maintain.
Overwhelmed? Don’t be. I am going to show you how this all ties together in the next few chapters. For now, with your knowledge of workflow in hand, let’s move on and talk about how projects fit into the mix.