How to Craft a Perfectly Streamlined Document Approval Process
A document approval process is crucial for streamlining your operations and bring order to your creative workflow. Learn how to create one in this article.
Have you ever had a project derailed because a key deliverable wasn’t approved on time?
I’m sure you have.
Getting documents approved in a structured, timely fashion is one of the more understated challenges in project management. You might have everything lined up perfectly, but if a key stakeholder doesn’t give the ‘okay’ on schedule, things can go downhill quickly.
To add to your problems, “quality” is inherently subjective in nature. Designer A might approve a design in a heartbeat, but Designer B might dump it in the trash. The end result is wild inconsistencies in what gets approved and what gets rejected.
This is why developing a document approval process is crucial for every agency. Subjective quality criteria and ad-hoc approval can work fine for small agencies, but any business that wants to scale will want to standardize the how, when, who, and what of the approval process.
That’s exactly what we’ll tackle in this article. I’ll show you why creating a document approval process is important and how to go about creating one.
What is a Document Approval Process (and Why You Need One)?
If you’re working in an agency - creative, marketing, or development - you’re invariably dealing with work that needs to meet some quality standards. Your code needs to be up to scratch, designs needs to meet brand guidelines, and marketing collateral has to match up to campaign requirements.
Meeting these quality standards means that any deliverable usually goes through multiple rounds of approval before it can go live. Some work might get rejected outright, some sent back for revisions, and some might actually be approved.
All this back and forth is an operational nightmare. At any point, you, the project manager, might be tracking dozens of documents stuck in the approval workflow. You have to keep tabs on who to follow-up with and when to do it.
And if that’s not all, you also have to make sure that the approvers actually follow quality guidelines, not just their individual biases.
The solution to all these problems?
A document approval process.
A document approval process is exactly what it sounds like: a workflow that defines the steps necessary to approve different types of documents and deliverables - copy, designs, code, etc.
Essentially, it maps the path a document takes as it goes from the first draft to the final product.
Keep in mind that the word “document” here is a catch-all term for anything that needs to get approved. It includes everything from a piece of code to entire apps, and from a landing page copy to a complete UI/UX flow.
For instance, you might have the following process to create a blog post:
- A writer proposes three different topics for a blog post
- The editor approves one topic but requests a new SEO-friendly headline
- The writer sends a new headline, which is approved by the SEO lead
- The writer writes the article, but the editor requests some revisions
- The editor approves the first draft and sends it to the content marketing lead
- The content marketing lead requests some revisions to meet campaign goals
...and that’s just a part of it. Depending on the complexity of the deliverable, you might have dozens of rounds of revisions and approvals.
A document approval process maps all these steps.
There are two parts to this process:
- A workflow that defines who to get in touch with for approval at different stages of the document’s journey
- A set of guidelines that define what each approver must look for to ensure quality standards are met
In the above example, an SEO lead might want a minimum of 1,000 searches/month for the blog’s keyword before approving it. These would constitute the SEO’s guidelines in the document approval process.
Put together, this process brings much needed clarity and control to the entire document journey. It not only tells you exactly what you have to do to create a finished product; it also ensures that your output meets certain quality standards.
Why a Document Approval Process Matters
There are plenty of reasons to have a document approval process in place (and we’ll look at them below).
But the biggest one is also the most important one: it’s just how things are done.
You’ll rarely, if ever, find a large agency that doesn’t follow some sort of internal process for approving documents. Whatever the pros and cons (not that I can think of any cons), it’s standard practice.
“Because everyone does it” isn’t a convincing argument, of course. So let’s look at some of the tangible reasons for creating a document approval process:
- Standardization: Following a uniform process ensures consistency in operations across teams, projects, and managers.
- Improve efficiency: A fixed approval process gives everyone a definite blueprint of what to do at each stage of the document workflow. The result is less confusion, faster turnaround, and more time savings.
- Data collection: By following a uniform process, you can collect data on how long each document takes to get approved at each stage. This can help you spot bottlenecks in the workflow. It also improves scheduling since you can use collected data to evaluate how long a document will actually take to go live from the first draft.
- Automate follow-up: Manual follow-up can get overwhelming, especially when you’re dealing with dozens of concurrent approvals. By following an approval process, you can automate follow-up based on fixed intervals (“first follow-up in 3 days, second in 5 days, etc.”).
- Improve accountability: A document approval process helps you track changes and approvals at each stage. This not only helps you keep a record of revisions, but also improves accountability.
- Improve transparency: Since everyone is forced to work within the same criteria, there is less subjective decision making and top-down control
Finally, a document approval process makes it easy for new employees to slot into their roles. If a project manager departs, she doesn’t take away all her best practices and processes with her. Instead, a new manager can fit right in by following your already established processes.
Since we’re all about scalability here at Workamajig, we see this as a massive win.
Workamajig lets you create online proofs, track approvals/changes, and hold conversations right from your PM tool
However, one question remains: how exactly do you create a streamlined document approval process? What are some of the pitfalls you should look out for?
We’ll look at some answers in the next section.
How to Create a Streamlined Approval Process
The document approval process you create for your agency will depend a great deal on the size and maturity of your organization.
That said, all successful approval processes have a few things in common:
1. Make sure you have all the basic elements
Regardless of the scale and scope of your approval process, it should have at least the following elements:
- A way to submit work for approval. Ideally, you should also give the submitter a receipt that they put in the work on time.
- A way to assign submitted work to different approvers. This should be done by someone other than the submitter (such as the project manager).
- A way to set deadlines and permission levels for different approvers. For instance, you might want to give one approver the right to change documents, while another should have read-only rights.
These make up the core of any document approval process - submitting and assigning work with fixed deadlines.
Beyond this, think of adding the following to your workflow:
- Automatic alerts, notifications, and follow-ups. This should be a high priority since it can save a ton of manual effort.
- An activity log so you can track when work passed through each stage in the approval workflow.
- Project management or task management integration. This way, you can turn edit requests directly into tasks.
For example, each deliverable in Workamajig can have its own internal review process. You can control the list of approvers to notifications and guidelines.
2. Ask the right questions
The above elements describe the functional parts of an approval process. Put them together and you’ll have the ingredients to get a basic workflow up and running.
For a truly effective approval process, however, you will need to zero in on the details.
Start by asking some fundamental questions about your process:
- Submission: What platform should submitters use to send in their submissions? What format should the documents be in? Do they get a receipt for submission, or is an admin-controlled activity log enough? What details should they include in their original submission to aid the approval process?
- Documentation: What supporting documentation, if any, should submitters include? What documentation should approvers consult before approving/rejecting a document? What are the quality guidelines for each submission-type for a) the agency, b) the project, and c) the deliverable?
- Storage and access: Where will you store submissions and supporting documentation? How will you grant people access to them?
- Permissions: Who gets permission to view submitted documentation? Do approvers get editing privileges as well, or is that limited to submitters? If an approver changes something, does the original submitter need to be notified?
- Communication: How will submitters, approvers, and intermediaries (such as editors or managers) communicate? Will communication go through an intermediary (common when dealing with clients)? How will you track this communication?
- Acceptance/Rejection: What happens if a submission is approved? What happens if it is rejected? Are there a criteria for automatic approval (say, if there is no response for X number of days)?
- Templates: Do you have pre-made templates for sending approval/rejection emails? If you’re using automation, how will you plug-in data from the submission (such as date, title) into the template?
You’ll find that there are few “right” answers to these questions. Much will depend on the maturity of your organization and how much you’re willing to spend on developing your approval process.
A small agency, for instance, might find that managing approvals via email is more than enough to keep everything on track.
A larger agency, on the other hand, might prefer using a creative project management tool like Workamajig with built-in approval workflows.
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3. Separate your internal and client-focused approval processes
In an agency setting, you’ll invariably encounter two types of approvals:
- Internal approvals where someone from within the agency needs to okay a deliverable before it is sent to the client.
- External approval where a client approves a deliverable or suggests changes to it.
While you can certainly use the same document approval process for both these activities, you’ll get better mileage by separating the two.
Because client approval is as much about offering good service as it is about getting a document approved. Offering suggestions, asking for revisions, following up on requests - so much of the client-agency interaction revolves around the approval process.
A well-designed process will go a long way towards making clients feel valued and comfortable.
Another reason to separate internal and client-focused approval processes is to limit scope creep. A client might request a revision that goes beyond the project’s scope. If you don’t manage it well, such revisions can easily derail the project.
For your client-focused approval process, focus on the following:
- A clean and effective communication interface, including a way to have conversations about each revision.
- A way to integrate change requests to handle out of scope revisions.
- A way to follow-up with clients on an automated basis for approving revisions.
4. Focus on user workflows
Every approval process, regardless of how it is designed, essentially has four types of users:
- Submitters who send in documents to be approved
- Approvers, i.e. people who approve or reject submitted work
- Intermediaries such editors, etc. who act as a go-between approvers and submitters
- Managers who oversee the entire approval process
A well-designed document approval process should focus on these users, not the documents alone.
Think of how each of these three users will interact with the approval process. Try to place yourself in their shoes and map their experience. Ask yourself: What should these users see? How much information should they get access to?
For instance, a submitter, once he’s sent in some work, can be kept updated about the status of the document with regular notifications. These notifications can help her be prepared for any revisions. A green signal that the work has been approved at first draft can also be a big morale booster, particularly in creative industries.
Similarly, an approver should have a way of knowing how many documents are in her queue. This can help approvers manage their own time and energy. Say, if there are 10 upcoming requests with close deadlines, they can spread out the work over two days instead of one.
As for intermediaries, think of how much do you want them to have control over the document process. Do you even need them? And if you do, what interactions do you want them to control? If a client goes through a project manager to request a revision, what value does it really add?
Finally, you have project managers to oversee the entire process. In a streamlined process, PMs should only have to dive in to fix problems; the approval process can be self-sustaining. Give project managers a bird’s eye view of all the current and pending approvals so they know where the hold up is.
Workamajig shows you the status of each project and its associated deliverables along with their current approval stage.
These are important questions to answer, especially if you want to create an approval process that can scale with your agency.
5. Think in terms of conditional logic
In an ideal world, a creative will create a design, get it approved by the project lead, and send it to the client who will accept it at first go.
In this version of project management heaven, your document approval process can be entirely linear.
But we all know that the real world is rarely that straightforward. A creative will create half a dozen designs, of which only two might be approved by the project lead. The client might not like either of the two options which will send everyone back to the drawing board.
In this real world, document approval processes are a lot more complicated.
A basic non-linear workflow based on if-then statements
To tackle this real-world scenario, you have to think in terms of conditional logic - a fancier word for “if-then logic”.
Say, instead of a simple statement like “send blog post to the editor for approval”, you might have the following conditional logic:
- If blog post is SEO-oriented, then send it to SEO lead for approval
- If blog post is thought leadership focused, send it to VP of Marketing for feedback
- If blog post is product focused, send it to VP of Product for feedback
- Else send blog post to blog editor for approval
In this case, you have different approval flows based on the content of the document. The blog post will go to the editor first only if it doesn’t fit the first three factors.
Try to use conditional logic in all your document approval processes. Think about who should get access to each document, at what stage, and under what conditions.
This will make it much easier to automate your processes. It will also make it easier for anyone else to slot into the PM role - a key ingredient for scalability.
Over to You
A document approval process is crucial for any agency that wants to scale its operations. The more refined this process is, the more visibility and control you have over your work.
For more control, stronger compliance, and better communication, try a management system like Workamajig. Workamajig’s agency-focused features help you manage the entire approval process right from your project management dashboard.
Get a free demo by clicking the link below.
About The Author
Esther, Workamajig’s current Marketing Manager, joined the team back in ‘14. She's a Jersey girl at heart with plenty of NY grit from her time across the river. Like most credentialed marketing gals, she’s always got a good cup of coffee and would love to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org.