Workflow Design: The Most Overlooked Determinant of Productivity

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Workflow design is one of the most overlooked determinants of productivity. In this article, we will discuss why workflow design is so important and what you should do to improve your workflow.

Over and over, the issues of time and attention management come up when I ask my readers about their biggest obstacles. We are in the midst of a distraction and information overload epic that is getting worse despite the abundance of distraction blockers like Rescuetime, and productivity tools like Notion.

Workflow is an important predictor of professional success. But, most knowledge workers and organizations are stuck in what Cal Newport calls The hyperactive hivemind, which he defines as “A workflow centered on ongoing conversation fueled by unstructured and unscheduled messages delivered through digital communication tools like email and instant messenger services”..

A workflow is simply the process that employees follow to complete their tasks. A poorly designed workflow can lead to frustration, errors, and even lost productivity.

Workflow vs Work Execution

workflow design
Photographer: Marvin Meyer | Source: Unsplash

One of the biggest causes of productivity drains is that people don’t understand the difference between workflow and work execution.

Knowledge work is better understood as the combination of two components: work execution and workflow. The first component, work execution, describes the act of actually executing the underlying value-producing activities of knowledge work-the programmer coding, the publicist writing the press release. It’s how you generate value from attention capital. — Cal Newport, A World Without Email.

Work execution might be a task like writing a landing page, blog post, chapter of a book, recording an interview, etc. Workflow is the process you follow to complete that task.

For example, my workflow for publishing a blog post looks something like this:

  1. Write the first draft in Mem
  2. Correct the first draft with Grammarly
  3. Copy and paste the revised draft into Storychief
  4. Ask my assistant to add links, images, etc.
  5. Publish the post

One of the biggest causes of distraction for most knowledge workers is mid-task context switching.

A mid-task context switch is when you have to stop an otherwise self-contained task and switch your attention to something unrelated before returning to the original object of your attention. The classic example of such switches is the need to continually return to an email inbox or instant messenger channel to keep up with drawn-out conversations about unrelated issues. — Cal Newport, A World Without Email.

But email isn’t the only culprit. It’s something we do in almost every other area of knowledge work.

Organizing Information

The way knowledge workers organization projects, tasks, and information also exacerbates the hyperactive hivemind workflow.

Imagine you and a team member are writing a sales page for a product launch.

  • The illustrations for the page are on your hard drive
  • She has the documents with copy on her desktop
  • You have the passwords to access to the landing page software

Whenever either team members’ needs access to the others’ resources, you have to send an email, text, or slack message, which perpetuates the hyperactive hivemind.

If resources, information, and knowledge are all in silos, it’s impossible to avoid mid-task context shift and focus on the bottom line-value activities. You spend more time talking about your work than doing it. Under these conditions, it’s almost impossible to do deep work.

“To produce at your peak level, you need to work for extended periods with full concentration on a single task free from distraction. Put another way, the type of work that optimizes your performance is deep work” says Cal Newport.

Your brain is not a hard drive. This is why knowledge management is becoming important to our ability to produce value, innovate and make new ideas happen.

Negative Impact of the Hivemind Workflow

workflow design
workflow design
Photographer: rafzin p | Source: Unsplash

The negative impact of the hyperactive hivemind workflow became apparent to me during the recent launch of our 100 Day Project.

  • My Marketing Manager and I were communicating about the project via email, text, instant messages, and notion threads
  • The resources we each needed for work execution are scattered across multiple apps and websites

Despite everything I’d read and written about organizing information, I’d ignored the value of centralizing knowledge.

“By collecting our knowledge in a centralized place outside of our own heads, we can create an engine of creative output — a “second brain” — to advance a career, build a business, or pursue a passion. By making this knowledge digital, we can reap the benefits of searchability, backups, syncing between devices, sharing with others, and more” says Tiago Forte.

That’s when I realized, we needed to reconsider our workflow design.

The Workflow Design Process

If you’re the CEO of a company, you have to focus on the bottom line-value activities. But that’s not as easy as it sounds when you have a really small team or are freelancers.

Delegation is the key to efficiency, scale, and maximizing output because the division of labor prevents context switching, and division of labor increases the dexterity of every person working on a project because everybody is ideally only doing what they are amazing at. It’s a 200-year-old foundational economic lesson about why division of labor increases output from Adam Smith’s book, The Wealth of Nations.

So how does that work if you don’t have the resources to focus on your superpowers and delegate the rest?

You design simple workflows for generic processes and leverage the power of automation, for complex processes.

The Pillars of Workflow Design

Photographer: Isis França | Source: Unsplash

1. Establish Your Criteria for an Effective Production Process

Cal Newport says, effective production processes share the following properties:

1. It’s easy to review who is working on what and how it’s going.

2. Work can unfold without significant amounts of unscheduled communication.

3. There’s a known procedure for updating work assignments as the process progresses.

The following are some questions that can help you determine if a particular workflow will be successful in meeting your needs:

  1. What do I want my workflow to accomplish?
  2. How much time does it take me to complete each step?
  3. Is there any redundancy or overlap between steps? If so, how could this be eliminated?
  4. Are all necessary materials available at every stage of the process?

Establishing your criteria for an effective production process is the precursor to workflow implementation and an important part of workflow analysis.

2. Standardize and Document Your Entire Process for Every Task

A simple checklist can do wonders for your productivity, efficiency as Atul Gawande writes about in The Checklist Manifesto. When a process for completing a relevant task isn’t documented, it perpetuates the hyperactive hivemind workflow because you:

  1. Can’t automate a process unless you document it
  2. Keep reinventing the wheel for things you’ve done 1000 times
  3. Have to keep telling people how to do things when you delegate tasks

You can also create a visual representation of your workflow with a business process map or workflow diagram by using a mind map.

Recently, I discovered a new tool called Scribe that allows you automatically generate step by step guides for how to complete any ask.

Standardizing and documenting business processes is one of the keys to Extreme Revenue Growth. If documenting processes increases revenue, it’s one of the most important responsibilities you have as the owner of a business.

3.Design a Process That’s Easy to Automate

Before you try to automate anything, you need to design a process that’s easy to automate. A process that’s easy to automate has a few main criteria:

  1. Repetitive tasks: The process for most tasks that knowledge workers complete every day is incredibly repetitive. For example, the process for tasks like publishing blog posts or recording interviews for our podcast is the same for every episode or article.
  2. Simple tasks: To figure out how simple a process is to execute, assign a task to someone else and see how they do. If they find the process difficult to follow, it’s too complicated.
  3. Requires minimal intervention: Any process that requires constant input from the person responsible for completing a task is going to be difficult to automate.

If you skip this step, the automation will be a drain on your productivity.

4. Automate Your Process

Our production process for The Unmistakable Creative Podcast is a good example of these criteria. When my friend Gareth Pronovost built the workflow that makes all this possible, he had me write down the sequence of tasks in explicit detail which looks like this:

  1. A guest submits a pitch or I submit an interview request
  2. Booking the guest for an interview and schedule it on my calendar
  3. Send the guest a Zencastr link to record their interview
  4. Creating their episode album cover
  5. Writing show notes
  6. Having our sound engineer edit and publish the episode
  7. Notifying the guest when their episode goes live

The operational flow is so streamlined, I can go three weeks without talking to my audio engineer, and we publish an episode every Monday and Wednesday like clockwork. The occasional mistake is due to things I let slip through the cracks.

The key to effective automation is identifying the parts where humans are needed and using technology to automate the rest.

Separate work execution from workflow

When work execution is not separate from workflow, mid-task context switching is almost inevitable. For example, I use Mem to write articles, plan out lessons for courses, and create content for product launches. But, I keep it separate from all communication with other people because It’s my personal space for doing deep work.

To summarize: Doing the work and talking about the work should be separate from each other.

Kanban for Project Management

kanban project management
kanban project management
Photographer: Jo Szczepanska | Source: Unsplash

In a dream world, we’d only be working on one project at a time. But, that’s almost never the case. As the CEO of a company, host of a podcast, and writer, I’m usually working on 3–5 projects at a time. Charlie Gilkey says that that most we can work on effectively are 5 projects at a time.

Create Task Boards for all Your Projects

“At the core of the task board method is stacking cards in columns. These cards typically correspond to specific work tasks. It’s important that these tasks are clearly described: there shouldn’t be ambiguity about what efforts each card represents. Also critical to successfully deploying this approach is having a clear method to assign cards to individuals” Cal Newport.

For each project you’re actively working on, create a board. On the board for each project, add the tasks you need to complete and organize your tasks by status.

For example, our team at Unmistakable Creative is currently working on three main projects.

  1. A Product Launch for the 100 Hundred Day Project
  2. Conversion Optimization of our Website
  3. Migrating our email list, courses, and other content to System.io

For each of the projects, we have a project board that with tasks and the people responsible for them.

Create Conversation Cards to Reduce information Overload

By using conversation cards, you reduce the information overload that results from text messages, emails, and other sources. Notes and all other related material for a project stay within the project, making it easy to apply the ideas of sequential tasking from Scott Belsky’s book Making Ideas Happen.

In the knowledge work organizations I observed that used digital task boards, these card conversations proved a critical part of coordinating work on specific tasks. People would check in on these conversations several times each day, reducing the amount of discussion required at the regular review meetings and eliminating the need for general-purpose communication tools like email, which do a poor job of structuring information and quickly become cluttered. — Cal Newport, A World Without Email

Inside the tasks for each of our three projects, you’ll find all the relevant notes, files, links, and passwords that anyone needs for the tools they might use to complete a task.

The user interface of your workflow software should allow seamless hand-offs and notifications when the status of a task changes.

It reduces your need to use email or text messages. You can quickly move from one task to the next without being interrupted.

The Power of Workflow Design

workflow design
workflow design
Photographer: Firmbee.com | Source: Unsplash

Having a well-designed workflow is the key to building a system that allows you to maximize your output. While the initial steps might seem tedious and time-consuming, in the long run, a well-design workflow can:

  • Save you hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars
  • Reduce information overload
  • Make you or your organization more profitable, prolific, and productive

When you have standardized, documented, efficient processes that complete tasks, you can allocate most of your time, attention, and energy to activities that create real value.

If you are struggling with managing your time, it may be because of your workflow design, which is causing you to spend too much time doing things that don’t add value. In summary, if you want to build an effective workflow, start by designing a process that will help you get what you really want out of life.

Need Some Help Improving Your Workflow

Check out our free workflow optimization worksheet, which will help you identify, document and automate you repetitive tasks and streamline your workflow. Just click here.

Candidate Conversations with Insanely Interesting People: Listen to the @Unmistakable Creative podcast in iTunes http://apple.co/1GfkvkP