The Workflow Cycle

A Workflow is a relationship between two agents, usually two individuals within an organization, which we call the “Customer” and the “Performer”. The Customer is someone who holds a concern, an objective regarding some outcome they seek in the world. The Performer negotiates with the Customer, making a promise to fulfil that concern, to deliver results that satisfy the objective. Throughout the relationship, the Customer is responsible for the Performer's success.

In some sense, as you'll see throughout the guide, Workflow can be considered a more general model for understanding and successfully utilizing OKRs. But it's not just about OKRs, its about the general pattern of negotiating promises of different scope and over different time horizons. Where OKRs can sometimes feel like "OKRs for OKRs' sake, workflow language grounds the OKR process in a continuous cycle, with clear accountability, and with a focus on the conversations that help us understand what we're trying to do together.

The Four Phases of Workflow

A Workflow is a cycle, made up of four quadrants: Listen, Negotiate, Execute, Assess. At a high level, the quadrants are as follows:

  1. Listening (Q1): A customer articulates a need, making a request for help to achieve their objective, and a performer, hearing the request, makes an offer proposing a way to satisfy the need. They listen to each other to develop a shared understanding of the objective and decide if they would be a good fit to work together.
  2. Negotiating (Q2): The Customer and Performer negotiate on some results (the "conditions of satisfaction", or CoS), culminating in a promise from the Performer to deliver those results within some time frame. This is a commitment by the Performer on how they intend to satisfy the Customer’s concern.
  3. Executing (Q3): The Performer executes on the promise they made. Sometimes, during execution, you discover new information or something happens that requires a renegotiation, so you go back to Q2, negotiating.
  4. Assessing (Q4): The promise is redeemed, the work is reviewed, satisfaction is determined, and the cycle repeats.

The following diagram sumarizes the key aspects of each quadrant:

Workflow Image

Thus workflow is a cycle of two people continuously working together to change the world by listening to eachother, negotiating over what they can do, executing on their promises, and assessing their outcomes. And the cycle repeats.

How Workflow is Used

We use this language directly in our conversations with each other to determine where we are in an accountability cycle. We say things like:

  • “Who is the Customer for this concern, and who is their Performer?”
  • "Are they able to be a good customer?"
  • “Can we do a Q2 to negotiate some results for that concern?”
  • “Is that a Q2 promise?”
  • “Can we go back to Q2 on this?”
  • “Let’s do a Q4!”

While it may seem obvious or trivial, the Workflow language can be used on virtually any scale in an organization to improve expectations, accountability, empathy, and overall working relationships. Workflow could be used on the scale of the CEO making long term promises to the Board of Directors to align the company's strategy, down to using it on daily Zoom meetings to ensure we’re not wasting our time and our meetings produce value, and everything in between.

In principle, everything anyone is doing at any time is part of some Workflow. Each person is likely to be on multiple Workflows at a time, as a customer for some and a performer for others. Importantly, every workflow has a “dual” Workflow, in the sense that the Customer is responsible for the Performer’s success. If Bob is Performing for Alice in some Workflow, Alice is performing for Bob in the dual workflow by promising to be a good Customer to Bob! So Customership is an active job. It involves clearly articulating a concern, helpfully negotiating on results, checking in regularly, and providing helpful feedback.

Many Workflows will often remain implicit, and repeated patterns of Workflows tend to become abstracted into “roles”. The activity of an organization is essentially its collection of Workflows. We can use the Workflow language to diagnose and improve communication as necessary, and to organize our overall planning.

Workflow can be used to describe any organizational structure, even if it’s not explicitly using the Workflow terminology. Typical management relationships and reporting lines and so on involve many implicit Workflows and promises. By surfacing those Workflows and promises explicitly, we can significantly improve the overall management structure.