"What app should we use?" reads the email.
The question appears reasonable. A long paragraph describes some of the people, systems, and processes involved.
Temptingly, the question also seems solvable. The information given allows me to eliminate some solutions. I know of some apps that might work.
Yet, I know my response: "I won't tell you what app to use, but I can help you choose."
As I see it, when I suggest an app, there are four possible outcomes. The app works—or it doesn't. The person likes the app—or they don't. I "win" only if the app works and the person likes the app.
In 75% of the possible outcomes, the app either doesn't work or the person doesn't like it. At best, I have a 25% chance of software selection success. This assumes that the person accurately assessed their needs and identified all the systems involved. No surprise here: people don't. Add more people to the process, and the chance that the solution works and is liked by everyone declines further. I don't like these odds.
So, I won't suggest an app, but I will suggest a process. Specifically, I suggest that we work together to create a process map (Figure A). The map shows all of the people, systems, actions, and decisions that affect data as it flows through the organization. Simple workflows produce simple maps. Complex workflows can create enormously large and complicated diagrams.
Remember this chart the next time someone asks you to suggest software without first creating a process map.
The tools we use to create a process map vary.
If everyone involved is in one location, we'll start with sticky notes and a dry erase board (or even a really large piece of cardboard).
If people are geographically apart, we'll use an online tool. For Google Apps users, Google Drawings offers a basic set of tools necessary to illustrate a workflow. Create a Google Drawing, share it with colleagues, start a Hangout, then share your screen. (You might also try LucidChart as an alternative to Google Drawings. The HTML5-based diagramming app works in a browser on the web and Android devices. There's also a LucidChart iOS app.)
Map your process
Whichever tool you use, the goal is the same: document the process details. Who does what? And with what tool or system? What happens next? Does a decision create a different path in different conditions? Most importantly, where does the process start? And where does it stop? Use notes and boxes, lines and arrows to map the process.
If you want to use standard flowchart symbols, start with a rectangle for a process step, a diamond for a decision step (Figure B).
Create a process map, or flowchart, before you select software.
Create your first process map relatively quickly—in one work session. Revisit it at least once, on a different day. Ask someone unfamiliar with the process to read it back to you. You may identify gaps that you can fill in or fix.
Ask for edits
Next, share your map with the people who actually do the work. They know the real details of the process. They know, for example, that they don't really use a form—or fill in a field with an important note. People involved in the process also will help you identify all the systems associated with a process: hardware, software, people, and context.
That last item, context, matters. If you want to eliminate an event signup sheet, it might seem like a great chance to have people enter their name on a WiFi-only tablet... until you realize the location lacks Wi-Fi.
Identify app alternatives
After the people involved in the process have created a process map, the tech expert's work can begin. You may identify ways to automate or streamline data flows. For example, a way to use Zapier to trigger an email whenever someone adds a new item event to a Google Calendar. Or a way to use IFTTT to add a receipt attached to an email to a Google Sheet. Or a way to eliminate paper and/or email approval processes with Kissflow or Fujitsu RunMyProcess.
You still have to complete all the usual steps in the software selection process.
But if you work with people to create a process map, the possible outcomes change. With your involvement and an accurate process map, whatever app the group chooses will at least work. Our odds of success have improved.
That leaves a 50% chance that people will like—or dislike—the app. My experience has been that if people have been involved in the process and choose the app, they're more likely to like the app than not. So, the next time someone ask you to suggest an app, consider that an invitation to create a process map.
How have process maps helped your organization? Share your experience in the discussion thread below.
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Andy Wolber helps people understand and leverage technology for social impact. He resides in Ann Arbor, MI with his wife, Liz, and daughter, Katie.