Why you need a creative workflow process

We’ve all been there. We finish our piece of a project and send it up the chain for the next-in-lines to review. They, along with their superiors, find more things wrong than right, and it comes back with a slew of change requests.

This horror story is tricky enough as it is. No matter how professional and seasoned we may be, it’s still tough to get our work ripped to shreds. It’s even tougher when this feedback loop never ends ‒ when nothing is ever good enough, no one ever gives final signoff, and it’s an endless cycle of revisions.

Perhaps even scarier is a similar scenario: You, your boss, and team are thrilled with the direction of a project and about ready to kick it out into the world – but at the eleventh hour you learn that someone from a completely different but nonetheless important department needs to sign off on it. And of course they want to change the whole thing. You’re blindsided.

Have either of these situations ever happened to you? I truly hope not. But the reality is, you’re likely to experience them at some point in a creative or marketing career. These days there are many proverbial cooks in our kitchens. Everyone has an opinion and wants to share it, and they aren’t always organized about when and where they provide feedback.

This is where establishing a creative workflow process can come in handy.

Ground rules

Before I get into the details, let me lay out a few thoughts:

Firstly, there is no one-size-fits-all remedy here. Each org and team is different.

Secondly, despite your best efforts to set a process and get buyoff from all involved, things (and people) will go rogue. They’ll usurp the process, jump up the chain, or weigh in late with feedback.

You can’t expect a creative workflow process to be perfect and be used perfectly. But having a foundational framework is at least a starting point.

What is a creative workflow?

At its most basic, a creative workflow is the process by which your organization or team generates, approves, and signs off on things. It involves identifying who’s in charge of what – and when – within your organization. It’s a document that shows the hierarchy and/or flow of movement, from concept to revisions to finalization. “Creative workflow process” can also be called “creative operations” or “workflow management.” It can apply to digital or print media, and to art or words.

Why do you need a creative workflow process?

The short answer is to save time, money – and headaches.

Those hypothetical scenarios that I described at the beginning bring frustration and lots of extra work. At best, you end up with a scenario like what I described – excessive input and edits to wade through to figure out whose comments override the rest. At worst, it can paralyze you and your project and prevent you from being able to ship.

I come from a print journalism background. In that arena, there are real consequences to not getting things to press on time. My constant battle was getting our magazine to the printer by deadline. We had agreed on an arrival date for our files – scheduled time on the press that was reserved just for us. Our materials had to be there in time. If we missed our date, someone else jumped ahead and got on press ahead of us. Sure, there was an option to pay the printer a rush-fee, which we sometimes did – but the budget didn’t allow for that every month. And in addition to missing printer deadlines, there were other consequences, like upset readers complaining about receiving a June magazine in August, or torqued-off advertisers whose time-sensitive ads ran so late that they were rendered moot.

It’s true that in today’s digital web world, it’s easier to miss deadlines and still be OK. Cloud technology allows us to update our websites and ads at virtually any time and from any place. But there are still consequences – like someone having to work late and make those updates. It’s maddening as hell to sift through seemingly endless rounds of edits, trying to reconcile which belong to whom, and which are the most important of the bunch. It’s the kind of stuff that makes the creative department want to pull their hair out – or quit.

I’m not saying a workflow management process will fix all of these problems, but it can certainly help streamline your operations and set expectations for all involved. And that’s a major start.

When do you need a creative workflow process?

At minimum, I recommend you establish a workflow system for big projects such as website redesigns, new product rollouts, and events. But more power to you if you can also create a mini-process for smaller outputs like to-customer emails and social media posts.

Just like planning an editorial calendar, having a clear workflow process helps you align and hit deadlines. This blueprint can help you stay on task and reduce the risk of people stumbling over each other to do the same thing. If done well, it should also help you retain control of different versions of a piece of content. All of these efficiencies can help your team save time – and maybe even money.

How to set up a creative workflow process for your organization

I’m a fan of practical learning, so now let’s step through an exercise. Grab a pad and pen and let’s get to work in outlining the pieces of a creative workflow for your organization.

  • Step one: Outline your team hierarchy
    Who on your team needs to review? Who has the final-final signoff? Are there other teams or team members who need to chime in? These are all important details to identify. Write down the names of the key people and teams who should weigh in. Put a star next to the final reviewer. And note this really needs to be one person. No approval-by-committee allowed. It will only cause you more headaches.
  • Step two: Assess your org’s personality accurately
    This is a little more subjective. But, how does your team function? Like, really?

In truth, every person – and team – functions differently. To set up a workflow that will actually work, you need to take a hard look at how your team naturally operates and then follow that model. You want to build a round hole for a round peg rather than introduce other geometry that simply won’t work. You want to ensure that this new layer for operations will flow and fit well – and therefore be used.

So, think about your team. Are you made up of a bunch of individual contributors and introverts? Or is your team collaborative and a big fan of face-time interactions? Make those notes.

  • Step three: Determine where reviews will take place – and how and when
    Take a step back and look at what have you uncovered. Do you think your team will do better with in-person meetings or individual task assignments? Be honest – it’s not about what you want, but what is best for the team. For example, if you’re all introverts, you probably don’t want to plan for an all-hands team review in person so that people can share their opinions – lest you end up with a room of stone-faced, silent folks who email you later with their thoughts. … So too, if your team is much more hands-on and collaborative – the kind that won’t get anything done unless they’re in a room with someone asking them for feedback right NOW – then it’s best not to send an email asking them to perform a review on their own time. Because, let’s be real: It just won’t happen.Write down the best way to collect feedback, such as via email or in an all-hands meeting.

Also, determine what tools you’ll use. For example, do you prefer to capture notes digitally, such as via a file shared on a service like Dropbox or SharePoint? Or will your reviewers send their feedback via email? Should they print it out and “redline” your work and then place the files on your desk? If you’re meeting in person, who is the note taker responsible for capturing all feedback onto a whiteboard or notepad?

Also, confirm what time and date reviews are due. Clarify what you mean by “close of business” or “end of day”; is it 6 pm, for example, or midnight?

Another key decision: Will there be limits on how many comments each person can provide?

I can’t answer all of these questions for you. But, I want to raise them so you can asses what you need to define. It is important to be detailed and specific in your expectations.

Pull it together: Create your workflow process

Once you’ve got all of these pieces, it’s time to put together your workflow.

Start in pencil or whiteboard, as it’s very likely things will change. Begin identifying the various pieces: who creates the content, who is responsible for initial review and at what date, who make the revisions and by when, who is on the second-review team, who makes the final changes, and who is your final-final sign-off person.

Once you’ve created a draft you like, push it into a flowchart. You can use a visualization tool like Visio or PowerPoint to illustrate the flow and hierarchy, or even make a rudimentary list in Word.

Get team buyoff

Congrats! You’re well on your way. But there’s one more step before you can roll this out and begin using it: You need to share the workflow with your team to ensure they understand and agree to the terms and process. Solicit their feedback (ironic, right?) and make adjustments as needed. You can skip this step, but, if you do, it’s highly likely that your hard work will go unused and ignored. People like to weigh in, as we’ve noted.

Bonus tips

  • Cap the number of evaluations so that you don’t review and revise endlessly. No one likes to feel like a hamster on a wheel! Try to cap it at two rounds of revisions ‒ maybe three at the most.
  • Establish a naming convention for revised files, so as to avoid confusion and over-writing of work. For example, append files with simple names like “v1” or the date, as well as reviewer’s initials.
  • If you really want to get fancy, you can turn your workflow process into calendar items and reminders.

I can’t promise that a creative workflow process will solve eleventh-hour edits and reduce all of your revision stress, but it should at least set some order and boundaries around the process.

I’d love to hear from you: How do you handle multiple rounds of revisions?