Embracing the Flow

I’ve been dealing with a bunch of communications shifts among the various groups with which I work as of late. As I watch people struggle with these transitions it’s got me considering how embracing the idea of a workflow is actually more important then mastering any one communication tool.

A workflow oriented mentality works, essentially, like this.

  1. I have a goal to accomplish.
  2. These are the general tasks which need to happen for that goal to be reached.
  3. I’ll figure out a way to accomplish these tasks.

In a workflow mentality, the goal is first. There may be dozens of paths to reach one’s goal and, while some paths might be more effective than others, the decision to use one over another is really a matter of which path people feel best equipped to pursue. A healthy workflow is always goal centric 1.

A workflow mentality’s goal-focused orientation also frees people from equating a task with particular pieces of software. Writing, for example, doesn’t mean “Open up Microsoft Word.” Rather, it means opening some way to input text for later perusal, editing, and sharing. The most important tools to accomplish a task are no longer the software we use 2, but our observation, creativity, and problem solving.

People who have been trained to think “the application equals the task” can be easily derailed by environment shifts. When such a person sits in front GoogleDocs after being a lifelong Microsoft Office user there is a tendency to think, “The buttons are different, I don’t know what to press, if I touch anything I’ll break it so it’s best to do nothing and see if I can get someone else to do this for me.”

Workflow oriented people, on the other hand tend keep the goal in mind — create a budget spreadsheet, write a letter, create a presentation on a topic — and then use their intuition and problem-solving skills to look for common points of reference in the new environment. They have been encouraged to think, “I know what I want to do, and I know there has to be a way to do it.” They don’t panic, they look for a way to reach their goal. If the workflow has to be redirected because of an environment change, then it’s redirected — the goal is always the priority.

A workflow orientation is built upon both long and short distance goals. A long distance goal is something like, “Create a presentation on [topic] by next Wednesday.” A short distance goal subordinated to the larger one would be, “Add an appropriate image to this slide.” A full workflow is really a family of smaller related workflows — each has it’s own goal, building toward a sum greater than it’s parts.

The wonderful thing about shifting toward a workflow mentality is how liberating it can be. While we will always have certain environments we prefer over others, giving ourselves permission to explore as we pursue a goal frees us from the fear of different shaped buttons. In fact, it encourages us to look beyond the buttons and ponder instead what we want to do. In a world where communications strategies need to shift every time our technology changes this is, in the long run, a much healthier perspective.

  1. Though I am amazed at how well workflows can be turned into toxic sludge sleds. 
  2. And, really, the software we use never was the most important tool.