Who defines the workflow, you or your team?

We regularly talk about optimizing the workflow but we don’t talk as often about who should be doing that optimization. Should it be the manager, or some dedicated process specialist, or should we be leaving it up to the team to figure out their own workflow?

Spoiler: We should let the team figure it out.

First, they’re the closest to the workflow and have the most information available about how to optimize it. They may want access to a process specialist to help them understand options but they have more knowledge of how the system works than any outsider will.

In his book Turn the Ship Around[5], David Marquet, talks about moving authority to information so that the people who know the most have the ability to make the decisions that affect them. In a traditional model, we try to pass information upwards to those people who can make the decisions but information is always lost along the way and the process is generally inefficient. Instead, if we pass the authority to make those decisions down to the people who have the most knowledge, then we end up with a better result, more efficiently. Not all decisions lend themselves to being delegated and so there are always some that will remain with the leadership. Decisions of how the team does their own work is rarely in this category, however.

Then if we really did dictate how the workflow should work, we would be taking autonomy away from the team. We’d be telling them not only what to work on but how to do that work. Do we really care about that autonomy? We do if we want people to perform at their best – the science is abundantly clear on this.

Let’s consider motivation: Self-Determination Theory tells us that autonomy, competence and relatedness are the three basic psychological needs for motivation, development and wellness[1]. Dan Pink takes a slightly different approach[2] of calling out autonomy, purpose and mastery as being the keys to motivation, although he still stresses that autonomy is critical. If we want people motivated to do their best, we have to allow for that autonomy. They must make their own decisions about how the work is done.

What else do we need to consider? Google did some fascinating research[3] into why some of their teams significantly outperformed other teams. After considerable study, they came to the surprising conclusion that the factors that made up their most effective teams had nothing to do with the skills of the people or their background or the tooling that they used. The most significant factors that led to high performing teams were, in order of importance, psychological safety, dependability, structure & clarity, meaning, and impact.

Psychological safety heads that list as being the most important factor to high performing teams. So what are the factors that lead up to that? According to Radecki and Hull, from the Academy of Brain-based Leadership, there are five primary elements needed for psychological safety: security, autonomy, fairness, esteem and trust[4]. Notice the appearance of autonomy on this list as well.

If we want our people to be effective, it’s clear that autonomy is vital.

Lastly, the team is far more likely to follow a workflow that they defined themselves than they are for one that was forced on them.

So the answer is clear. The people closest to the work should be defining their own workflow. If they need help with that, they’ll ask.

[1] Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2017). Self-determination theory: Basic psychological needs in motivation, development, and wellness. The Guilford Press. https://doi.org/10.1521/978.14625/28806

[2] Pink, D. H. (2011). Drive. Canongate Books.

[3] Project Aristotle: https://rework.withgoogle.com/print/guides/5721312655835136/

[4] Radecki & Hull (2018) Psychological Safety: The key to happy, high-performing people and teams

[5] Marquet L. David, (2013) Turn the Ship Around, Penguin Random House

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