How to Manage Projects Effectively With Workflows

A workflow is a chain of events, conditions and prerequisites; it is essentially a sequence of actions ensuring that all the individual work steps in your project are carried out in a specific order. But how do you design a project workflow? How detailed must the flow of work be structured and what are the real advantages of applying workflows?

Visualizing a Workflow

Imagine a crossroads with cars approaching from each direction. In Germany the driver to the right has the right-of-way. In other countries such as the USA the one approaching first has, which can be disturbing for some. Bottom line: both work. In case of a heavy volume of traffic, traffic lights are used to control the flow. These lights can be operated in two different modes.

The fixed-time mode generates reoccuring sequences of start (green)/stop (red) phases. Each of the phases may be altered, making it possible, for example, to assign longer phases of green to cars on main roads.

Another way of managing traffic is by way of induction loops embedded in the ground. By the way, streetcars assert their need at the push of a button, just as pedestrians.

Scientists and researchers have been looking for ways to make traffic lights “smarter” for a long time, trying to shorten the phases of red for all road users. Not to forget roundabouts; all reduce their speed when approaching;the traffic flows, for all, in parallel.

Boundary Conditions for Workflows

A crossroads may not be the first thing you think of when thinking about project work, but the basic idea is the same, a sequence of actions, conditions and prerequisites. So what are the implications for your project work? The answer is, it depends.

There is a big difference between a print marketing campaign for software and the development of new medical software. Companies are subject to legal requirements, with failure to comply often resulting in penalties and a damaged company reputation. With EU guidelines, company-internal guidelines and practices, international agreements, ISO and ANSI norms, there is a lot to consider.

With marketing campaigns there is a lot less to consider. But if you want to define the workflow for serial production, optimizing entails examining each and every step of all contributing personnel. The best way to design a workflow is to orientate yourself to the concrete requirements for sequence control. Who do you want to control, what tasks have to be controlled and what dependencies exist?

Projects Make Workflows

Are all your projects alike? Probably not. They differ in size, priority, number of tasks, number of contributors and much more. There are different types of projects. And for each of these types there is the perfect workflow, a workflow that repeatably produces the desired results, with rules determining the sequence of events and actions and facilitating collaboration of contributors. So how does such a chain of actions, conditions and prerequisites look like?

Firstly, a user (processor) performs a task (activity):

Workflow with user and activities

Workflow with user and activities

A user (processor) produces a result, be it a physical product or a file, such as a requirements specification. The processor is responsible for this product:

Workflow - The user creates a product

Workflow – The user creates a product

The activity as well as the result pass through phases or states. An activity may be started or completed, a product may be in definition, its realization may be in progress or accepted. In addition, the product of an activity may be the prerequisite for another activity, depending on the state of the product. Testing whether a requirement has been realized requires that is has been realized, obviously.

If the test yields a positive result that state may change to tested (success). As you can see, there is a direct link between processor, activities, products and states:

Workflow - A combination of processor, activities, products and states

Workflow – A combination of processor, activities, products and states

It is these links you can define for all your projects and project types. You decide which processors perform which tasks how often and in what sequence, how the flow of products looks like and who is responsible for the individual results.

The means to control all this are the states, also defined by you:

The project and the workflow

The project and the workflow

To avoid you having to conduct this definition for each new project it is helpful to document and communicate these workflows. Ideally you provide tool support for workflows enabling you to work template-based.

Advantages of Working With Defined Workflows

Workflows are probably not new to you. You already make one step after the other, you communicate with colleagues at the right time. So what are the advantages of defined workflows?

  • Better understanding
    Defining workflows creates clarity on how to collaboratively reach the desired results. A vague picture is replaced by a map containing concrete steps. Who needs which information when? Whose work is dependent of whose results. In doing so, you create a better understanding and appreciation for the work of others.
  • Improved communication
    Communicating about content is much easier with the help of defined workflows, simply because it is more targeted. You talk about content, not about how to access or retrieve this content. Which also saves time, money and effort.
  • Simplified documentation
    Specific tools document the progress of your project automatically, and management of results is easier too, making you and your auditors happy.
  • High quality and efficiency
    Templates make it easy for your team to produce desired results, consistently. For high quality products.

Depths of Detail

How detailed should a workflow be? Actually, this question is too broad. Let us try this question:

What elements should be part of a workflow? Is it useful to include and define each and every detail and mini activity? Here it is helpful to remember Vilfredo Pareto, and to generate large effects with as few elements as possible. Detailing a workflow later is easy, the opposite may not be.


Let the work flow. In your projects with all their specific boundary conditions. Consistently and repeatable. Define a workflow supporting all contributors in their work. Utilize the advantages of defined workflows for your projects.

My name is Michael Schenkel – and I believe in tools, if they are useful. Tools that support users in their work, tools that provide a common working environment for all types of roles in a project.

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