Looking to eliminate bottlenecks and streamline operations within your business? If so, then having a detailed approval workflow process in place is essential. With an approval workflow process in place, team members within your organization follow a predictable sequence of steps to process data. This improves efficiency while helping teams close deals in a timely manner.

With a better understanding of what an approval workflow can do and what a successful approval workflow process should look like, you can design and implement the right approval steps for your team. Meanwhile, a number of software platforms exist to help automate these business processes for even better results. 

What are approval workflows?

An approval workflow refers to a specific series of steps or actions needed to complete tasks or process data within an organization. With this unique type of workflow, each step requires approval from an individual before the process can continue to the next step.

There are many potential applications for an approval workflow. Businesses frequently use them to create and finalize contracts, produce invoices, and create purchase orders. With a purchase order workflow, for example, a manager may need approval from a finance team member to ensure there is proper cash flow available before an order is completed.

Having an approval workflow in place can help to minimize errors, improve internal communications/collaboration, and maximize efficiency overall.

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3 types of approval workflows

Teams can use approval workflows to keep things moving when tasks need to be completed — but not all approval workflows look the same. In fact, there are a few specific types of approval workflows that businesses frequently use. By better understanding what these are and what they look like, you can decide which are most suitable for your organization and its needs.

1) Process approval workflow

A process approval workflow is probably the most common, coming into play anytime there is a clear end goal and a series of steps to follow to get there. This type of workflow is best suited for ongoing tasks or projects that are relatively predictable and unlikely to change. For example, a company may have a document management workflow to handle routine forms, such as purchase orders or invoices.

2) Project approval workflow

When the end goal of a project is clear, but the exact series of steps to achieve the goal are dynamic, then a project approval workflow may be more suitable than a process approval workflow. Project workflows offer more flexibility in the sense that the precise steps aren't set in stone — though they still follow a basic structure. 

This type of workflow tends to be best for more creative projects (such as marketing campaigns) where precise steps or tasks to reach the end goal need to be redefined with each new campaign.

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3) Case approval workflow

Case approval workflows come into play when the outcome or end goal isn't known from the beginning. Also known as investigative workflows, the tasks and outcomes in this type of workflow ultimately depend on the information learned through each step of the process. For example, a case approval workflow may be used in processing an insurance claim, where the ultimate claim approval depends on what is revealed through each step of the claims investigation.

What every approval workflow process should have

Ultimately, each workflow approval process will depend on your organization's unique needs and goals. However, there are a few key elements that you'll find in any effective approval workflow process.

Submissions

Most approval workflows will begin with a submission of some kind; this refers to a document or other material that is needed to begin the process or move through each step of the process. In a content approval workflow, for example, a submission may include an outline or even a first draft of a proposed blog post.

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Task lists

A typical approval workflow will also consist of a task list, which breaks down the exact steps that need to be carried out by each team member. This ensures that everybody is on the same page about which steps must be completed and approved by whom before moving on to the next step. Going back to the content approval workflow example, a task list may include steps for topic or audience research, a first draft submission, an editor's revision, final approval, and publication.

Permission levels

In any approval workflow process, it's important to ensure that each involved team member knows their specific authority level, roles, and responsibilities. This helps each stakeholder understand where they fit in within the "big picture" and avoids team members stepping on one another's toes. Setting permission levels for any given project can avoid confusion about responsibilities or duties that could otherwise create bottlenecks.

Approvers

Every approval workflow process involves steps that depend on team member approval to move things along. However, it's important to designate exactly who will need to sign off on each task so there is no confusion or delay. In situations where you may need multiple approval levels, it's also necessary to designate team members for approval at different levels or tiers.

Approval conditions

A set of approval conditions for each workflow sets clear and consistent standards for whether something should ultimately be approved or rejected. This way, each approver should be able to make a clear decision, not clouded by outside influence or judgment. In a content approval workflow, for instance, approval conditions for an editor may require that the content is a certain number of words and that it follows the company's style guide.

Alerts and notifications

When using approval workflow software to carry out these processes, alerts and notifications can keep the ball rolling. For example, team members and approvers may leave comments when something is rejected — or email notifications may be generated when content is approved and moves to the next stage of the process. These alerts can be useful for keeping stakeholders informed and ensuring that each step is done on time.

The step-by-step approval process

The exact approval process for a document, project, or other task will vary based on several factors. However, a general idea of what the approval process should look like, step-by-step, may help you implement your own approval workflow.

Step 1: Document submission

First, be sure that all involved team members have a reliable means of submitting documents related to the approval process. Ideally, this will be a cloud-based platform that allows involved team members to upload, access, review, and approve documents from anywhere — whether they're working in a physical office or remote workspace. A great project management software can also facilitate easier document submission by including online and offline access.

Step 2: Step-by-step review

Next, make sure your approval workflow process has a system in place for distribution, review, and signature collection for approved documents or tasks. For example, when the first draft of a blog post is submitted for approval requests, the editor(s) assigned to the blog post should automatically be notified through email or another preferred avenue.

From there, great workflow software will allow team members to share documents with others and assign different permissions as needed in real time. As the team makes changes, you should save previous drafts of documents. This way, if you need an audit trail later on, you'll have all the information you need.

Step 3: Final approval (or rejection)

Lastly, an approval workflow process needs a system for collecting signatures, whether for approving a document or rejecting it. An effective workflow management platform can make this easier with digital signature collection, which allows approvers to easily sign and verify approvals or rejections with just a few clicks.

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What are the advantages of approval workflows?

There are many reasons to implement approval workflow processes within your organization (if you haven't already). Still not convinced? Consider just a few key examples of what your company can gain from effective approval workflows.

Maximizes productivity (especially when automated)

With any task or project within your organization, there are bound to be a lot of moving parts. When one part is out of sync, it can derail the entire project. Having an approval workflow process in place helps to keep things moving, maximizing productivity and efficiency by making sure everybody is on the same page at all times.

You can see these benefits even more when you use approval workflow software to automate certain tasks. For example, the right software may automate the approval of some documents throughout the process without the need for manual intervention. This, in turn, frees up valuable time among your employees so they can focus on other tasks.

Increases transparency, trust, and control

With an approval workflow process in place, it's easy for any stakeholder to quickly and easily determine where a project or document is within the entire process. This increases transparency and saves team members from reaching out to other employees for updates. Meanwhile, when using software to manage approval processes, you can use access control features to create level-based access to sensitive data. This improves security (especially when handling sensitive information) while enhancing trust and maintaining transparency.

Reduces blockers and bottlenecks

Bottlenecks are a common problem in business operations; all it takes is one "hiccup" for the entire approval process to fall apart, costing the organization a great deal of time and money. With the right approval workflow processes in place, organizations can streamline these processes and eliminate costly (and frustrating) bottlenecks.

This is especially true when software is used to enhance approval workflow processes. For example, software can automatically send out requests to multiple approvers at once rather than relying on (and waiting for) one person to complete the approval. This can result in fewer bottlenecks and fewer documents being blocked or rejected without cause.

Optimizes the sales cycle

Document approvals are often needed at different stages of the sales cycle. For example, your organization may have its own process for creating and submitting invoices, generating customer quotes, and handling purchase contracts or agreements. As you know, the approvals needed to move these documents through the process can be tedious and time-consuming to obtain.

When you have a solid approval workflow process in place, every team member knows where the document is within the workflow at all times and what their responsibilities are. This helps to speed up the overall approval process, which can help your business close deals more quickly. All of this, of course, improves your bottom line.

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The best approval workflow software

A quick search of approval workflow automation software online will yield hundreds of results — so how can you know which option best suits your organization's needs? We've narrowed down a few of the best workflow automation platforms based on ease of use, features, functionality, and integrations.

1) Teamwork

Designed with approval workflow management in mind, Teamwork is an all-in-one platform that can help agencies avoid frustrating bottlenecks and get more done. Teamwork's intuitive platform makes it easy to visualize where documents are at every step of the approval process and who is responsible for each step, eliminating confusion and helping the process move along as smoothly as possible. Plus, Teamwork comes in handy for so much more than approval workflows; organizations can use it for deadline management, workflow automation, and other applications.

Key features

Teamwork is loaded with features to streamline your organization's approval workflow process, including Kanban boards to help your team better visualize progress. Meanwhile, the platform has plenty of workflow templates to help you get started with your approval process and save you time. And with Teamwork, you always enjoy unlimited client users and time tracking for a more collaborative client experience.

Learn more about how Teamwork can simplify your workflows with world-class resource management software.

2) Screendragon

Screendragon is another all-in-one workflow management platform designed to streamline business processes, speed up delivery times, and reduce costs. It's popular with companies of all sizes, including Fortune 500 companies, with its ability to scale to thousands of users.

Key features

From an approval workflow perspective, Screendragon comes especially in handy with its automated workflow tools, custom forms, and digital approvals. This platform allows users to easily leave comments for review, mark up documents, compare versions, and much more. Meanwhile, the platform comes with a full library of templates to choose from that can be customized as needed. Advanced permissions are also available to improve security, which is ideal for organizations working with sensitive information.

3) Filestage

Filestage markets itself as "the world's best-rated review and approval platform," enabling users to upload and share unlimited files with other users while tracking documents through every step of the approval process. According to Filestage's website, organizations can get files approved up to three times faster when using intuitive software.

Key features

Filestage makes it easy to set up approval workflow processes in just a few minutes, allowing users to get started immediately. Likewise, users can log in from anywhere using a browser on any device, which is handy for remote teams. Filestage also includes one-click approvals, version tracking, and the ability to invite unlimited reviewers. This lets your team leave feedback at every stage of the approval process — even those who don't have accounts.

Automate your approval workflow process with Teamwork

As you can see, your organization gains a lot from having effective approval workflow processes in place. Likewise, some great software options can help you automate some of these processes and streamline your operations even more. Teamwork is an all-in-one management tool that can help you get the most out of your approval workflow processes while seamlessly integrating with the tools your team is already using.

Ready to learn more or start your free trial? Sign up today to see first-hand what Teamwork can do for you!