Launched by Atlassian almost two decades ago and originally geared toward software developers, Jira has since established itself as the go-to project management solution for Agile teams around the world. Though it’s still mostly used by development teams, Jira’s flexible functionality can work for almost any team in any organization.
However, with this flexibility comes the risk of complexity: One of the most frequent complaints I hear about the software is that its sprawling workflows are unmanageable. So, how should workflows be created to boost adoption and maintain efficiency?
I’ve been using Jira for 12 years across multiple industries and in a variety of project management, business analytics, and Jira administrator roles. These Jira workflow best practices will help you optimize your setup and maximize the benefits of its flexibility across all areas of your organization.
How to Adapt Jira Workflows for Any Department
From implementing standard development workflows to designing those with more complex requirements, it’s possible for a Jira administrator to adapt the software’s capabilities to any part of their organization. If you need to track processes outside of IT, Jira has more to offer than the typical sprint board view. Here are some ways that various departments and businesses can enhance their Jira usage:
|Organization Type||Recommended Jira Setup||Advantages|
|An HR department with a complicated hiring process that spans multiple systems||Create a hire board that uses workflows based on the type of new hire, driving the path that HR personnel take through various systems to get each hire set up.||Plotting the different hiring paths allows HR personnel to get new hires set up correctly and completely the first time, saving time in onboarding and costly corrections later.|
|A marketing department that wants to manage recurring work, such as campaigns||Set each campaign within a project as an epic. Repeatable task cards can be uploaded at the start of each campaign, ensuring that each is run similarly and all relevant processes and actions are taken.||The repeatable task workflow ensures that each campaign is run as efficiently and comprehensively as possible. Additionally, the Jira roadmap view can be used to provide a real-time view of the planned timeline versus the actual status for each campaign.|
|An IT business with multiple development groups that don’t necessarily work in the same manner (perhaps due to a recent acquisition or teams reporting to different organizations)||Use projects that contain multiple boards and one common workflow, where each group has a board that represents the way they work. Boards can be Kanban, Scrum, or a mix.||Teams can still work in the manner that works best for them, but project work is tracked and reported on uniformly. This reduces pressure on the team to change their processes solely for project- or program-reporting purposes.|
|Any organization that undertakes regularly scheduled tasks, such as KPI reporting or actions with external vendors||Use Jira automation to create and manage tasks based on a specific schedule. The tasks can run through workflows as needed to ensure the process is completed.||All work is centralized in one place and team members don’t need to rely on calendar notes or follow-up emails to keep tasks on schedule.|
Jira Workflow Management
When using multiple workflows for different functions, administrators may find themselves struggling to manage the numerous schemes. If an administrator ends up with a different workflow scheme for every project, the resulting boards can become nearly impossible to maintain. To avoid this, build and maintain workflows in a purposeful way. These are my top three recommendations for doing so:
1. Find Common Ground
Different column names on a board don’t necessarily require different workflows to support each one. Find commonalities across project workflows, statuses, and transitions. A step or status of “In Progress” can cover a development step for IT, a requirements-gathering step for a project management office, and a creation step for a marketing campaign. If they can follow a common status and workflow, you can reduce the volume of Jira items to maintain. Doing this also reduces the likelihood of a missed transition on a particular project.
2. Focus on the What
Often, people create workflow steps for each team member who has an action, which can yield a workflow that looks like spaghetti and a board with columns too narrow to read. Instead, focus on the type of task, i.e., the What—not the Who or How. So how do you manage a workflow that has several review and approval steps that are similar in nature and occur at around the same time but are performed by different people? Use features like looping functions, post functions, and automations that allow an item to reside in an approval workflow step (which can also be used for some testing steps in a development workflow) but still represent multiple actions, tasks, and checkpoints.
Keep in mind that board columns relate to statuses, so 15 statuses would require either 15 columns, each with a single status, or multiple statuses per column. If your board view really requires 15 separate statuses, you may need to create a more complex workflow. If your board view includes multiple statuses per column, however, consider simplifying your workflow to match the columns.
3. Use Data Where Possible
Jira is data-driven, so often it’s more efficient to use data—rather than a workflow step—to represent the status of a task. Instead of transitioning a user story from Requirements to Acceptance Criteria to Reviewed, you could represent each of those categories as one status where each task relates to a specific field or data element.
If you follow a data-driven approach, you can also take advantage of automation and schedule items to move through the workflow as work is completed and documented, rather than waiting on someone to move the cards. Data attributes like standard fields, custom fields, or labels can be used for this.
For example, to reduce the noise in a large development workflow, all three requirements statuses could reside in a single workflow Requirements step. When the requirement is ready for Acceptance Criteria, the task owner adds a label of “AC needed” or checks a custom field of “Ready for AC,” and Jira will automatically assign it to be tested. This facilitates the process in the same manner as having multiple steps but keeps the workflow lightweight. This is especially important if you have a workflow that could support concurrent steps or for which the order is flexible.
Two Clean Jira Workflow Examples
The following diagrams detail efficient and manageable workflows composed of statuses, transitions, and resolutions that can be applied in a variety of scenarios.
A lean generic approval workflow can be used for all manner of business tasks, like marketing proposals, as well as various parts of development tasks, such as requirements.
A good development workflow can support multiple boards and may support several development teams working in different ways. Again, it focuses on the What, not the Who. This one workflow can support many types of boards, organizations, project phases, and business tasks. While it may appear complicated, this is largely due to the number of transitions, which are necessary for the teams using it to manage items efficiently.
Common Jira Challenges and Solutions
Jira’s flexibility means that you have to be purposeful in how you set up and maintain workflows. You also need to ensure that you aren’t defaulting to workflows when other approaches are more suitable. Some common problems can be remedied by following these steps:
|I have too many different types of workflows.||Map out a “superset” of all the workflow statuses, grouping similar statuses. Create one common workflow and convert each to that new one.|
|My workflows are complex.||Spend some time surveying colleagues to find out how they are using the board and associated board reporting. It’s likely they aren’t using all the workflow steps or that it’s not necessary to have discrete steps. Start by creating a simplified version of one complex workflow and ensure that all relevant reporting and process functionality are still available.|
|Items end up lost or in the wrong status.||If you have many different workflows and boards, you’ve likely encountered this issue. First, you’ll need to review all the unmapped statuses on each of your board settings. It’s easy to update workflows but forget to add a new status to a board column. Even if there are statuses you don’t use on a board, it’s best to have them in the backlog, rather than unmapped, so you don’t lose card visibility if you make a change. Second, simplify the workflows to minimize the occurrence of idle or lost cards.|
|I need lots of workflows because we do things differently in different situations.||Take a look at your situations and determine if they are based on an issue type or some other data. You may still have many workflows, but they can be made common across issue types or some other entity. Then, simplify the way you manage them. For example, you can maintain three workflows for task issue types (simple task, task with testing/approval, task with deployment) and pull those into various workflow schemes, rather than maintaining 18 workflows for tasks by project.|
Lean on These Techniques for Workflow Success
Many organizations could find additional opportunities to utilize Jira, but they are already overloaded with workflows from their IT projects. By implementing these recommendations and best practices, you can expand Jira usage without increasing the administrative burden. If you have experience using Jira at other organizations, use that as inspiration but don’t limit your thinking to how you’ve seen it used for a particular project or industry. Remember to find common ground, focus on the What, and use data where possible. Doing so will ensure you’re utilizing all the flexibility that Jira has to offer. And once all areas of your organization are using Jira efficiently, it will be easier to discuss and implement global KPIs, process improvements, and other initiatives across the business.