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What is a Workflow Sprint?

Please consider reading the first article in this series - https://coko.foundation/blog/understanding-workflow-first-design.html).

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A Workflow Sprint is a fast and efficient methodology for helping organizations understand and optimize their publishing workflows before making technology choices.

I designed the methodology after witnessing many publishers making these common mistakes:

  1. Investing in slow and costly ‘requirements research’
  2. Looking at the problem exclusively through a ‘technology lens’

Understanding and optimizing workflow need not be a slow or expensive process. Too often, these processes are lengthy research projects that interview individual team members and produce immense amounts of narrative and flow diagrams. Such outputs are seldom clarifying. On the other hand, Workflow Sprints produce crisp clarity in a process that can be counted in days, not months or years.

A Workflow Sprint first investigates and describes the current workflow and then produces an optimized workflow. From these outputs, your organization will be in a good position to consider technology choices.

Principles of Workflow Sprints

Workflow Sprints are a series of facilitated sessions that can occur remotely or in real space. There are some fundamental principles of Workflow Sprints:

Principle 1: Operational Stakeholders are best placed to describe and optimize workflow
The best people for describing an existing (or speculative) workflow and optimizing that workflow are the people actually doing the work now - your team (operational stakeholders - more on this below).

Principle 2: Group discussion simultaneously expedites the process and adds clarity
Group discussion involving the operational stakeholders is the most effective way to understand and optimize workflow. Having these experts in the same room eliminates guesswork and team members can drill down into an issue together in quick time to tease out the fidelity needed.

Principle 3: Facilitation is key
Experienced facilitation conducted by someone external to your organization is critical for keeping the momentum going and managing any potential and problematic team dynamics.

Principle 4: Keep the documentation light
If the documentation of the workflow is not something decision makers can easily grasp, then you are doing it wrong. For this reason, I have designed Workflow MarkUp (WFMU) to aid in expediting the documentation process while producing clear, human-readable documents.

Now that we have the principles covered let’s take a brief look at what a Workflow Sprint actually looks like.

What does a Workflow Sprint look like?

Photos included are from actual Workflow Sprints.

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A Workflow Sprint is a facilitated, structured conversation between the organization’s primary stakeholders. The stakeholder group should comprise those people that are part of the current workflow (constituting all parts of the workflow) and decision-makers.

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Operational stakeholders are the people who do the work. These are the most important people to have involved because they are the ones that understand what is done, on the floor, at this time. Sometimes, if automation is involved, a trusted technician that knows the limits and possibilities of publishing technology might be useful. No Workflow Sprint can occur without operational stakeholders.

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Strategic stakeholders are the organizations decision makers. The decision-makers may, or may not be part of the process, however, they will certainly utilize the outcomes to guide them in making decisions going forward. It can be a good idea to include strategic stakeholders to build internal buy-in.

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The Workflow Sprint draws these two types of stakeholders together in a series of remote or real space sessions. If held in realspace the event can occur over one day. For remote events (which we have found to be more fatiguing), the Sprint should be broken down into multiple shorter sessions over several days.

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The facilitator guides the group through a process designed specifically for your organization. The steps usually include (discussed in more detail below):

  1. Introductions
  2. High-level description of the goal
  3. High-level discussion
  4. Documentation of the existing workflow
  5. Open discussion
  6. Designing an optimal workflow
  7. Report (optional)

Each phase of the above process should be fun and characterized by a high level of engagement from the team.

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Simple tools such as whiteboards (or ‘virtual whiteboards’ if remote), large sheets of paper, and markers are often used to draw out existing workflow processes or future workflow ideas.

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Workflow Sprints are fun, efficient, cost-effective, and fast. The process is a good way to generate additional internal buy-in for a project and to quickly help everyone understand the broader goals and challenges.

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We have found that Workflow Sprints are also extremely effective team-building events. If held in real space, we advocate good food and coffee! If done remotely, we sometimes include some less formal moments to help people relax and get into the flow of the event.

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Now let’s look at the process in more detail. The following is not comprehensive, but it should give you a good starting point. If you want to drill down further into the process, feel free to contact me.

Speculative vs Extractive Workflow Sprints

Before we get started, a quick word about two types of Workflow Sprints that I have already hinted at throughout this document. The two types are:

Speculative - Speculative Workflow Sprints imagine new workflows. Typically new entrants or start ups require speculative sprints. Inevitably the speculative variety can reveal a lot of contradictory requirements and ‘blurry vision’ that need to be discussed and examined in detail. Sometimes, the outcomes may also lead to compromises the stakeholders may find difficult to accept. Consequently, Speculative Workflow Sprints often take longer and require a higher degree of expert facilitation.

Extractive - Extractive Workflow Sprints start by examining a known (existing) workflow. Generally speaking, these descriptive processes are easier to facilitate and quicker to document.

Real Space vs Remote

A word regarding remote vs realspace events. In-person sprint processes are definitely more effective and quicker. Remote sprints are possible, however, the dynamics and format change somewhat. Documentation for remote events is usually done with shared virtual whiteboards, and the process is usually split into several shorter events spread over a number of days.

Hybrid Workflow Sprints (a mix of virtual and in-person participants) are also possible but are harder still, mainly due to the fact that the tools used for documentation are necessarily different, which makes it harder to share ideas across a team split into real and virtual spaces.

The Team

When hosting a Workflow Sprint the first question you need to answer is - who do I invite? There is a simple rule - invite enough operational stakeholders, so you have every part of the workflow covered. Having strategic stakeholders may be (not always) a good idea but do keep in mind the more people involved that don’t do the work ‘on the floor’ the longer the process will take. Having said that, strategic stakeholders stand to learn a lot during the process if they participate.

In the case of ‘speculative’ (new) workflows, you need to gather the people with the vision and some folks that know about the kind of work you have in mind.

The Space

If the Sprint is held in real space, it is good to have a single table that can seat everyone involved. In addition, break-out spaces with enough whiteboards or paper and markers to go around are necessary. Post-it notes are welcome but not required.

Facilitation

It is very important to have a neutral facilitator. The facilitator needs to ask hard, bothersome questions, and consequently, it is much easier to do this if the facilitator is not subject to internal power dynamics and existing interpersonal relationships. In addition, the facilitator must:

  1. Facilitate conversations - The facilitator must hold the space for the group to come together and share their knowledge and ideas.
  2. Manage the process - The facilitator must keep the process moving forward.
  3. Balance group dynamics - The facilitator constantly reads the group, pre-empting obstacles to collaboration and productivity and adapting the strategy accordingly.

Facilitation is a deep art and there is way too much to go into here (yet another thesis…). However I strongly advise hiring (or ‘borrowing’) an experienced facilitator from outside your organization.

The Steps

As mentioned above, the process generally follows a similar pattern but should be adapted before or during the event if necessary:

Introductions

Quick introductions of everyone in the room.

High-level description of the goal

The facilitator outlines what the group is trying to achieve and, in quick detail, describes the Workflow Sprint process. A strategic stakeholder may be introduced to give a 5-minute validation of why the group is gathered.

High-level discussion

It is always necessary to start with a very high-level discussion about the workflow and what the group is trying to achieve together. In general, the Workflow Sprint process starts with a very wide (sometimes meandering) conversation and very quickly begins to focus on specifics.

Documentation of the existing workflow

If the group is big, the facilitator may break it down into smaller groups to drill down into specific parts of the workflow. Each group will then present their documentation back to the larger group. At the completion of this process workflow should be documented in its entirety in front of the entire group (using whiteboards or large pieces of paper or shared virtual whiteboards if working remotely). Documenting with everyone present helps validate the workflow and ensures any vagueness or ‘gotchas’ are caught.

Open Discussion

A general discussion on what people think about the existing workflow. It is good to allow this to slip into a little brainstorming in anticipation of the next step.

Designing an optimal workflow

The facilitator generally breaks the team into smaller groups. Each group chooses some part of the workflow (or the entire workflow) they wish to re-imagine. Documentation is often captured with drawings (there is no preferred format - let each group decide). Each smaller group’s work is presented back to the entire group and discussed. From this, the facilitator can document (also in front of the entire team) a proposed optimized workflow.

Report

Generally, the facilitator will take all the documentation and distill it into a short report. Documentation of the outcomes usually uses workflow notation (see below) as well as pictures of all the artifacts created during the event. The facilitator generally adds further information to tease out some questions for the organization to consider (contradictions/compromises etc).

Stage 6 :Designing an optimal workflow is the most important step. You will find Step 4 :Documentation of the existing workflow, if done well, greatly aids the group to think about how to solve some of the problems and create further efficiencies.

Workflow Notation

Steps 4 and 6 above require us to document the workflow. The most effective way to describe workflow is through a numbered list of who and what for each step. I call this WorkFlow MarkUp (WFMU - actually WFMU isn’t really a Mark Up Language in the formal sense, but WFMU is one of my favorite radio stations and I just couldn’t resist - hi to Dave Mandl if you are out there…).

There is no need to have complex flow diagrams and extended narratives - most of the time, these do not add clarity and sometimes mystify.

The three elements of WFMU are:

  1. Who - usually the role of a team member or group (eg author, or editor). We use the naming convention of the host organization for the role names. In some cases, the ‘who’ is an automation ‘role’ and refers to a machine (computer/s).
  2. What - usually a single verb that describes what actually happens (eg review’, or ‘write’ etc).

The third part of documenting each step - When - is usually understood simply by the position in the numbered list.

An entire publishing process can be described in WFMU. Here is a short excerpt from a Workflow Sprint I facilitated with the Organization of Human Brain Mapping (note this article uses very simple illustrative examples):

  1. Author creates new Submission
  2. Author completes Submission
  3. Author Submits
  4. Editor reviews Submission
  5. Editor invites Reviewers
  6. Reviewers accept the invitation (or reject)
  7. Reviewers write reviews
  8. Reviewers submit reviews
  9. Editor reads reviews
  10. Editor writes decision
    1. If accept → publish (go to 15)
    2. If revise → Author revises, return to (5)

Documenting workflow like this is straightforward to create and easy to read.

WFMU enables us to easily identify where problems exist. For example, if we saw this:

  1. Editor reviews Submission
  2. Editor invites Reviewers
  3. Reviewers accept the invitations (or reject)
  4. Editor considers a possible desk rejection

We can easily see a problem – we have just spent a lot of time inviting reviewers for a submission (Step 5) that might be rejected (Step 7) before reviews are written. These kinds of problems are not uncommon and are clearly exposed with WFMU.

I use WFMU to describe what currently happens in a workflow, to help identify problems, and to document optimized workflows.

Conditional Logic

As you can see from the above example, we can easily capture conditional logic by using nested bullets and conditional statements eg:

  1. Editor writes decision
    1. If accept → publish (go to 15)
    2. If revise → Author revises, return to (5)

Documenting Automation

Automation can also be described using WFMU. For example, the following is from a Workflow Sprint with the NIH:

  1. Author Submits
  2. System checks document validity
    1. If all passes -> create workspace
    2. If fail -> generate report for Author

Note: When designing new or optimized workflows that involve automation we must avoid magical thinking. To this end it is good to have trusted technicians in the room to help the group understand the promise of technology.

What are the outcomes of a Workflow Sprint?

There are two direct outcomes of a Workflow Sprint: Documentation of the existing workflow - A description of your workflow as it exists now Documentation of the optimized workflow - A description of the ideal, optimized, workflow

In addition, depending on how much your facilitator understands about publishing, they may wish to generate a third outcome: A report - A report with the above two items plus narrative about the realities of achieving the optimized workflow and any other issues that may need to be considered.

From this report, the organization should be in a very good position to consider technology options. A publisher can now do a gap analysis to evaluate existing solutions or start the design process to build new technology.

Note - as mentioned above the WFMU examples are very simple workflows. I chose these deliberately to help illustrate how to use the notation. Often the workflows documented with WFMU are far more complex.

Where did Workflow Sprints Come From?

The Workflow Sprint methodology was not born in a vacuum. I designed the process by adapting a previous method I had designed – Book Sprintstm (photos below).

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A Book Sprint (http://www.booksprints.net) is a facilitated process that leads a group through the process of producing - including conceptualizing, structuring, writing, editing, illustrating, designing and typesetting - a book, from zero, in five days or less.

In the words of the Book Sprint website:

“A Book Sprint is a unique experience, relying on maximum commitment from the participants, a dedicated working space, and strong facilitation. All this and a non-negotiable deadline.”

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Book Sprints is a ‘radical optimization’ of the book production process, and the method has been applied to a huge array of use cases for a broad variety of clients, including Cisco, the World Bank, the United Nations, Netflix, VMWare, RedHat, Department of Commerce (USA), California Digital Library, University of Hawai’i, Dell, Haufe, the Government of Burundi, and others.

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Following the success of Book Sprints, I designed Workflow Sprints with a similar aim – to radically optimize a legacy slow and expensive process through facilitation.

Summary

Understanding and optimizing workflow is critical before making technology decisions. I have seen many organizations progress down the path of technology-first solution seeking without first analyzing workflow.

Understanding and optimizing workflow is critical to do first and it does not have to be a long, labored, and expensive process. Workflow Sprints is presented here as an example methodology that optimizes for speed and efficiency - producing clear documents quickly, in days, not months (as per legacy processes). If you are unsure about the process I recommend trying it as it is so quick that you could front-load a sprint before pursuing more traditional methods. There is very little downside. If nothing else everyone that participates will learn a great deal from other team members about how things actually work and how their work affects others downstream. This, together with team building, is a good reason in itself for trialing a Workflow Sprint.

But my experience is that this process greatly assists organizations thinking about changing their technology and/or improving their publishing processes.

I designed Workflow Sprints to be lightweight and effective. There is a lot more I could write here about how to get the most out of the process but I hope the above gives you some ideas about how to reduce the burden of this kind of analysis. There are also some deeper items I haven’t addressed in this article. After reading a draft of this article Ken Brooks (https://www.linkedin.com/in/kmbrooks/) suggested that the very scope of what is considered to be ‘the workflow’ needs to be addressed up front. He is absolutely right. If a publisher breaks down the workflow into disconnected components and focuses on optimizing each separately - editorial, publication and digital workflows for example - then you have embedded many assumptions into the process already. These assumptions might be the very conditions that prevent higher levels of optimisation. The solution would be to consider the entire end-to-end publishing path as the subject for a Workflow Sprint (or similar process). For further thoughts on this perhaps consider reading the article on Single Source Publishing I wrote last year.

As you have probably guessed I also facilitate Workflow Sprints so if you need a facilitator, then give me a call! If you want to try Workflow Sprints without me, please go for it! I am happy to have a remote coffee and discuss the process if it will be of help to you. Many thanks for taking the time to read this short article!

Adam Hyde
adam@coko.foundation

Credits

Many thanks to Raewyn Whyte for copy editing. Also thanks to Ken Brooks for some great feedback. Thanks to Henrik van Leeuwen for the illustrations.