The words “workflow” and “project” tend to get used interchangeably. And while they do have a lot in common, they each have unique purposes. Knowing what those are will help you choose the most-efficient system, adopt the right tools, and ultimately help your team succeed. Now let’s deep dive into workflow management, project management, and everything in between.
What is workflow management?
To understand what workflow management really means, we first have to take a closer look at what a workflow is (and is not). By definition, a workflow is a series of steps that happen between the beginning and end of any task. Whether those steps are dictated by procedure, born out of habit, or made up along the way, a workflow represents the process of getting things done.
So workflow management then is how we plan, organize, and execute the steps it takes to achieve a goal. Sounds a lot like project management, right? While the two have a lot in common, workflow management is all about the sequence in which things happen. Progress is linear; once one step is completed, the next one can begin, and so on. Recurring processes and routine objectives are best served by workflow management because it’s repetitive.
Because enterprise workflow management creates an infinitely repeatable process, it can be really helpful with automating everyday assignments, making teams more efficient, and minimizing roadblocks. Day-to-day business operations often rely on team workflow management to perform at the highest, most-lucrative level. And it should come as no surprise that checklists and daily workflow management go hand in hand.
But the best part is, once a workflow is established, it likely won’t be interrupted by staff changes or unexpected absences because most of what needs to be done can be reassigned or automated. Also, business processes that rely on workflow management can be found at any company regardless of its size, industry, or products/services. And while these tend to vary in complexity, you may already have some ideas of daily operations you could streamline.
Now it’s time to take a look at project management.
What is project management?
A project is a carefully made plan to achieve a goal. Whether it’s executed by an individual or an entire team, projects tend to involve a series of tasks. These tasks are often unique to the project’s objective and can vary greatly project to project. Still, each task is well defined, monitored, and assessed every step of the way.
Although steps might be consecutive, like in a workflow, projects tend to have flexible structures complete with simultaneous open assignment and room for edits or changes and come with limitations in the form of timelines, budgets, and resources. It’s also worth noting that projects tend to be temporary. Once the objective is achieved, the project ends. Unlike the cyclical nature of a workflow, each project has a limited lifespan that concludes with some sort of deliverable.
And that’s where project management comes in. Project management works to define the details associated with completing a goal. Even if a project is uncomplicated, management will often involve a set of tools, research, and skills to pull off. And because no two projects are alike, managers must work to bring all these variables together then organize and communicate an effective plan — all while staying on time and budget.
Project management is important because it helps keep teams on the same page about big-picture ideas. In practice, it requires strong leaders with excellent communication and organization skills as well as the foresight to predict and solve problems before they ever occur.
What’s the difference between workflow management and project management?
It’s more than just terminology. This section will show you all the ways workflow management and project management differ, along with some examples to further illustrate the point.
How workflow management and project management are different
1. Workflow management is measured by a task’s completion. Project management is measured by time.
If you’re using workflow management, you know that the task will be done eventually, even if it’s a rush job. But if you’re using project management, your task probably has a strict, non-negotiable deadline that, if missed, could negatively impact the outcome. For example, a social media workflow might begin and end with posting on Facebook, but a social media project will take into account how posts across all platforms work together towards a common goal.
2. Workflow management is constant. Project management has a clear beginning, middle, and end.
Projects are a series of specific set of tasks that are unique to the objectives of that particular one-time only assignment. Once those are complete, so is your project. But because workflow management is all about completing recurring tasks, each new trigger continues the cycle. You may finish a particular task, but the workflow you used to do it will always stay the same and can be repeated an infinite amount of times.
3. Workflow management is used by long-term teams. Project management is used by temporary teams.
Your office email intake workflow is constant because your email is constant, so no personnel changes are required. But once a project is over, a team can disband.
4. Workflow management is often simple and straightforward. Project management is complex and layered.
If you’re hiring new employees, your workflow might include posting on a job board, reviewing applications, and scheduling interviews. However, it starts to become a project when additional steps like skills exams, new workflow management training, and niche certifications are required.
5. Workflow management focuses on connecting a series of tasks. Project management focuses on planning, monitoring, and assessing the success of those tasks.
A customer service request workflow requires employees to first get details regarding the request. After that, they can follow up with solutions. Once that’s complete, they can message the client to let them know. A customer service request project might then take that information, assess its effectiveness, and monitor how this workflow does or does not support larger customer experience goals.
6. Workflow management progress is sequential. Project management progress is nonconsecutive.
For an employee PTO request workflow, you must first receive a request before you can review it. Projects, on the other hand, include tasks that don’t necessarily rely on triggering events.
7. Workflow management results are measured by their completion. Project management results are measured by their quality.
Your blog-post production workflow may include sourcing keywords, coming up with a topic, and drafting the article. Your blog-post production project might include a holistic approach to fitting this piece into the latest content calendar.
How workflow management and project management are similar
Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s circle back to all the ways these strategies are alike.
1. Workflow management and project management can both be used to complete simple or complex goals.
Onboarding an employee can be made into a workflow just like drafting a Tweet can be made into a project.
2. Workflow management and project management can both be used to achieve small-scale or large-scale goals.
Your yearly tax receipt filing workflow might take two months to complete, similar to how your annual tax return project can be completed in a day.
3. Workflow management and project management can both facilitate better collaboration.
Both require your employees to communicate goals and work together to achieve them. Whether it’s drafting an event guest survey or planning an entire brand activation, both activities rely on teamwork.
4. Workflow management and project management can both organize and simplify processes.
It’s easy to be on the same page when you have a written or visual reference for everything that needs to happen in order to achieve your goal.
5. Workflow management and project management can be used simultaneously to supercharge productivity.
You can use workflows within projects. For example, your convention might need sponsors. How you go about actually pitching those sponsors can be turned into a repeatable, step-by-step workflow.
Workflow management and project management go together like peanut butter and jelly
Because these two concepts get mixed up a lot, managers often reach for the wrong project or workflow management software and apps to get the job done. And even though you now thoroughly understand the difference between workflow management and project management, you can take advantage of tools like Wrike, which helps complete both simultaneously without missing a beat. Being able to create and monitor a workflow management system, track project updates, improve team communication, and plan any imaginable process or task in a single, user-friendly visual platform is a win-win for any success-minded project manager.
Final Thoughts: The project and workflow management process
You can think of workflow management as the “what” — what needs to happen and what order it needs to happen in. Project management, on the other hand, is the “how” — how it will be planned, how it will be monitored, and how it will be executed. But at the end of the day, these two distinct and highly effective practices are better together — especially when you use tools like Wrike to facilitate them.