Workflow Systems that Work: Part One

This week a member of one of the other divisions of our Center asked to meet with me. Her team was having trouble tracking their projects, meeting deadlines, and determining whether or not to accept additional projects. She wanted to see the systems I’ve put in place for the Communications division, which got me thinking about the importance of systems.

Systems for tracking and scheduling work are hard. The systems I have put in place for my team have been an evolution that tracks with the growth of the team, team needs, team suggestions and ideas, and available technology. I thought I’d share my four rules for successful systems. This blog will talk about the first rule.

Rule One: Keep your system as simple as possible.

When I was working for Macy’s Northwest, the marketing division was large, so we needed ways to figure out which designer, writer, coordinator, proofreader, prepress person, etc. was working on each project. The job jackets that floated from desk to desk were a litany of details, but they were a lifesaver because the electronic tracking system was so confusing that I don’t think half of the employees bothered using it. Simple queries for pulling up what you were working on returned volumes of data, no doubt intended to clarify, that obscured who was doing what.

My team today is nowhere near that scale, which has its advantages and disadvantages. There are four of us dedicated solely to communications, plus partial time from other writers, learning specialists, and web developers. We try to keep our workflow systems as simple as possible. Here are the things my team uses, but that don’t overcomplicate it.

You’ve got to have a calendar.

We have seven google calendars used to track different types of tasks. It seems like a litany of calendars, but they’re simple to display and simple to hide. Adding new deadlines or moving deadlines from one day to the next is quick. Looking at the calendars provides a snapshot of projects months out. You can look at a specific calendar, if you’re trying to figure out what’s being sent for HTML emails for example, or you can look at all calendars to see how the projects line-up. And it’s easy, easy, easy. Everyone on the team has the ability to edit and view the calendars.

You’ve got to have long-term plans to reach your goals.

Now for the stuff that fills the calendars! We have a communications plan. I develop it for January of each year and it projects the large-scale projects through at least mid-year. As the year progresses, I update it accordingly so that it’s always a minimum of six-months out. This document also includes important elements that orient the communications team around our vision, mission, and service to the organization. It has our key vetted messages and initiatives, information about the audience, etc.

Each of the Center’s large programs have a marketing plan. It contains many of the same elements of the communications plan mentioned above, but specified to that initiative. For instance, our Summer Institute marketing plan includes information about target audience, key messages, competition, and a timeline of marketing events. (And if you want, you can also pull up the “Training Communications” calendar to see a color-coded visual display of the items being disseminated for the Summer Institute.)

I keep the Center-wide communications plan and each marketing plan as simple as possible. These are documents that should be helpful. I’m developing useful pocket references (some larger-scale than others), not telephone books.

You’ve got to have a short-term tracking strategy.

We also have a simple task tracking sheet. I affectionately call it the “Friday List” because I update our team’s tasks each Friday (it’s a google spreadsheet). The lead on each task has an “x” by his/her name. Each week, if anyone has any questions about their tasks, they can refer to the list first and follow-up with more questions if necessary. Throughout the week, I ask my team members to please add anything they’re going to need to tackle the next week below, essentially building much of my “Friday List” for me before I update it at the end of the week. We use this document to check-in as a team during the week and make sure that we all know who’s leading what initiative and talk about what else has developed that will need to be added to the various elements of our tracking system.

How much time is this going to take?

As I reviewed these with the member of the other division, she asked that inevitable question: How long does all this take? I answered that I spend less than two hours per week updating these documents. My team members spend 30 minutes or less. This small amount of time gives us clear, easy ways to prioritize and track our projects, saving more time than it takes. Plus, it results in clear expectations and deadlines, which I believe is essential for effective teams, and leads to rule number two: transparency. We’ll look at this rule in the next blog post.

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