The Difference Between Project Management and Workflow

Project management and workflow are similar in many ways. But what are the differences between them? And what do they look like when used effectively in a business?

What is Project Management?

A project is a time-bound venture or job that serves a specific purpose. Projects are designed to bring about a specific outcome (such as a product or service). When the outcome is reached, the project is finished and the project team often disbands.

So, project management is the managing of a project. No surprises there.

An example of a project would be building a house. When building a house, as on most projects, there are constraints. The “project manager” – in this case, the contractor or architect – needs to ensure that all constraints are met and that the building process is as efficient as possible.

The term is easy to understand, but projects can be complicated and managing them can be challenging.

What is Workflow?

Workflow is a sequence of related steps or processes that are necessary to complete a particular task.

Often referred to as a business process, workflow moves work from one stage to another until the job is complete. Workflow is happening everywhere all the time.

Going back to the house example, to build a house, you need permits. The “project manager” has to request permission to build on the property, fill out the proper forms, send them back and wait for approval before the building process can begin.

This approval process is an example of workflow – work moving from hand to hand until the process is complete.

Similarities Between Project Management and Workflow

Let’s first take a look at some of the similarities before we see how they differ.

Function

They both serve to bring about a specific outcome – the completion of a task, product or service.

Interconnectivity

The two concepts are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are complementary to each other.

Projects rely on workflow to run smoothly. They consist of multiple connected tasks being worked on by various team members. Without proper workflow, work cannot transfer between members of the team or move from stage to stage smoothly.

Example:

Research teams submitting loan approval requests is an example of workflow within a project. On the other hand, after finishing a project, the project manager might send it to their supervisor for approval. This approval process is workflow.

Complexity and Size

A project is larger and more complicated than a workflow, right? Not necessarily. They both can deal with simple or complex, small- or large-scale tasks or processes. And, in fact, projects can take the form of a deliverable within a workflow.

Example:

During a company’s annual technology diagnosis audit, management may determine that a mobile app is necessary. They then create an app development team. This team is taking on a project (app dev.) within a workflow (the audit).

Differences Between Project Management and Workflow

Despite having many similarities, the two concepts have a few key characteristics that help distinguish them.

Duration

Projects are temporary, generally one-time things. Workflow is a repetitive, functional process within an organization.

Example:

A product design team’s job is to design a product. The job is done when the product design is complete.

When the product design is ready, it enters the production stage. Once the product is on the market, a company may set up a workflow process that notifies suppliers when quantity on hand is low and new products are needed. This process will remain throughout the product’s entire lifecycle.

Location and Identity  

Workflow happens throughout all aspects of a business. It can transcend projects and whole departments. It can also be a stand-alone process like generating a document or scheduling an appointment.

Role: Planning vs. Connecting

Where project management deals with planning, overseeing, and directing tasks; workflow deals with connecting those tasks. And where project management looks at the big picture, workflow makes the big picture move smoothly from stage to stage.

 

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