How not to workflow it - common mistakes to be aware of

Paul Hardy Profile picture for user Paul Hardy June 28, 2021 Audio mode
It's easy for the meaning of 'workflow' to become over-hyped. Three workflow experts from ServiceNow share their experiences of how workflows can go wrong, and top tips on getting them right.

Yes or no direction signs © Gerd Altmann - Pixabay
(© Gerd Altmann - Pixabay )

There's a lot of talk about workflows of late, and it's easy to get caught up in the hype.

But the main message is simple — functionally orientated organisations create functional silos. The problem is that work is cross-functional, and having data stuck in one place is a stumbling block in the way of progress.

For businesses to succeed, the focus needs to shift from ‘how we've always done things' and ‘how do we force old systems to work now' to ‘what is actually the right way to get work done?'

Often, the best way to learn is from mistakes. So we've got three of our own workflow experts to fill us in on some of the most common workflow mistakes — and share their tips, as well as examples of businesses that are getting it right.

Read on for our three tips on how not to workflow.

1. Don't focus on the product 

Paul Hardy, Evangelist, Chief Innovation Office at ServiceNow says:

It's important to get one thing clear — distinguishing your business based on product is an outdated approach. Many businesses still build products for products' sake, essentially creating something based on a need or gap they think exists, and hoping that consumers will consume it.

But by focussing on the end product alone, you're likely to miss out on what really does make a difference.

What's more, sticking with a legacy product-only approach is likely to lead to technical debt within an organisation, as, without a change in thinking, employees will be stuck using systems that were built years ago.

What you should do

Hardy goes on to explain:

Every product you can buy today, without exaggeration, has become an experience. Whether it's cars, beer, smartphones, or something else, customers are just as concerned about the service they get from a company as the product they get, if not more.

People now make decisions not based on logos or brands, but the experience they'll get or the skills they'll learn. And it's the same at work — successful work experiences are those that employees really want to consume.

So don't focus on the product. Work with people, really understand their needs — rather than guessing at them — and then deliver the experience they want, consistently. It's a case of really letting users define what products look like, what features they have, how they're developed and produced.

It doesn't need to be complex, either. It's all about having the right tools in the right environment. If you do that, everything else will follow.

2. Don't focus on the tech

Becci Copley, Head of Customer Engagement at UP3 provides some guidance:

Tech needs to be approached in the right way, or it can cause more confusion than it solves. This is particularly true if everyone is working from lots of different systems, all with different data sources.  The end result can be a lot of complexity that needs to be managed.

This often happens when businesses focus on adopting tech because it promises to be a panacea, rather than assessing what business problem it will help solve. Ultimately, if you just use tech to automate bad processes, you'll never get where you need to be.

The knock-on effect of this "tech-first" approach is that your solution won't get used. People aren't interested in tech that doesn't actually make their lives easier, and if you haven't properly established a benefit, it's not going to spread properly across the business.

What you should do

Copley recommends a shift in focus: 

If someone comes to you and says they want to use a given product, figure out why. Why do you need it - is it to reduce your operating costs? To enhance customer experience? Or increase your understanding of your operations?

You need to start with your problem, rather than your solution. If you don't know what the problem is, you won't know how to judge if you've been successful in solving it. Problem statements allow you to understand what doesn't work, where you need to get to, and, finally, what the tool or process is. 

You also need to involve the right people in the fact-finding stage and that often means people on the ground, not just senior managers. You need to understand the experience and problems of the people who will use that technology day-in, day-out. Only by making a solution that works for them will you gain their trust and buy-in.

We did just that with train operator Avanti West Coast (formerly Virgin Trains). Their previous rail disruption response process involved a lot of people, teams, knowledge bases, and data sources - they used many disparate systems to power what was essentially one single process. 

To get a full understanding of their working practices and identify their core process  shadowed them for several days. Based on that experience, we built a bespoke rail disruption rail app including a a new ‘Rail CMDB'.

That time spent with the specialist users paid off. The app was designed from their feedback and how they worked on a day-to-day basis meaning adoption was embraced quickly.

Having seen how effective it is, that approach is now trickling through to other areas of the business needing workflow digitalisation.

3. Don't skip right to building

Michael Maas, Vice President & General Manager, EMEA North, ServiceNow brings it back to the meaning of 'workflow':

I see many customers looking to use tools to solve their problems. But at the same time, people are tired of tools. Masses of features and functions leave people lost, and blind you to the broader process that leads to the best solutions. 

Many of us are keen to get to the building phase as soon as possible, but it's important to lay the right foundations before we get to that step. Skipping straight to the building phase means speeding right through essential prep work, that is, hitting the pause button, reflecting on your existing processes, and outlining the experience you want to give your customer, employee and partners.

After all, ‘workflow' doesn't mean the same thing to everyone, and catchy phrases and acronyms don't always capture the reality of what a solution needs to do.

On top of that, scrapping everything and going right into ‘build mode' also prevents you from using what is working already. Not only is that inefficient, it's counterproductive.

What you should do

Maas offers the following constructive advice:

The right approach is to inspire customers, and show them they have the ability to improve their business processes very simply. 

When you start talking about new business processes and solutions, a lot of business leaders start to get cautious. They see high costs, long implementation times, poor integration, adoption struggles, and probably start to recall a range of bad past experiences.

The answer is to explain how you can make your customer's processes simpler and faster based on their existing environment - that is, how they can then increase and improve the experience with existing assets and systems, and leverage systems of record to become a system of action.

This will immediately neutralise about half of their worries, and allow them to let their guard down to focus fully on the best way to solve their business challenges. 

Put simply, getting workflows right is about the process, not the tools. So embrace what you have already — don't throw it out — and let's figure out what the right process is for your business.

The future is workflow

Workflows don't need to be complicated. Find out how more about how workflows can help your business drive digital transformation.

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