How a typical approval workflow works

An approval workflow can be as simple as a two-step process or as complicated as a multiyear product launch. Regardless, every approval workflow is designed to fulfill two purposes:

  1. Ensure tasks adhere to specific standards so a project can continue.
  2. Give final approval, close out a workflow, and ultimately reach completion.

An approval step within a larger workflow clears the work completed so far, allowing the project to move to a new phase. The final approval step concludes the entire project.

But how does this functionality play out in an approval workflow? Let’s look at what goes into making a typical approval workflow.

The basic components of an approval workflow

Similar to standard workflows, there are many elements that come into play for a workflow to, you know, work. Here are the eight most important components:

1. Input

This component includes the resources or materials needed to complete the different steps of the workflow. They might be step-specific or apply to the entire project. In a vacation approval workflow, the primary input is the vacation or time-off request form. In a content approval workflow, the primary input is a draft of the proposed content.

2. Transformation

The transformation component modifies the input. It might dictate how the input is received or what will be done to it once it’s received.

For example, in the vacation approval workflow, the transformation components are the format and submission mandates — employees may be required to submit the request on a specific form and to their direct manager. From there, the request will be added to a queue for the manager to review.

In the content approval workflow, the transformation component is the draft, which is submitted as a Google Doc so the gatekeeper can review it and leave comments.

3. Output

The output component is the product of the transformation component. It’s the material or resources that will act as the input for the next step of the workflow.

For example, in the vacation approval workflow, the request in the queue is the new input that the manager can compare to the other requests in the queue. This will help ensure there are no overlapping requests to prevent understaffing, among other issues.

In the content approval workflow, the Google Doc draft serves as the input for the gatekeeper to make edits or leave comments.

4. Actor

The actors in an approval workflow are the people (sometimes machines) tasked with completing the work. This includes gatekeepers in charge of approvals, as well as the people submitting or doing work.

In the vacation approval workflow, the employee is the actor submitting the time-off request, and the manager is the actor who reviews it. In the content approval workflow, the writer is the actor drafting content and submitting it in a Google Doc, and the editor is the actor responsible for reviewing and editing it.

5. Activities

Activities components are the tasks or business processes performed in a workflow. In the vacation approval workflow, submitting the time-off request is one activity, and reviewing it is another. In the content approval workflow, drafting content is one activity, and the editor’s review is another.

6. State

The state component categorizes the status of a project and illustrates where it is in the workflow. For example, in the vacation approval workflow, the state can be “in review,” “approved,” or “denied.” In the content approval workflow, the state of the project may be categorized as “drafting” while the writer is working on the copy and “in review” while the editor is reviewing it.

7. Approval conditions

Perhaps the most important components of approval workflows are the approval conditions. These are the criteria used to approve or reject an input. These conditions may be spelled out to the actor creating the input, or they may be unknown because the conditions depend on several changing variables or are impossible to standardize.

In the example of the vacation approval workflow, approval conditions might include whether or not the employee has vacation time available, whether they will be urgently needed during the time they are requesting off, or how many other employees will be on vacation at that time.

In the content approval workflow example, approval conditions might include having copy that’s free of spelling and grammatical errors, fulfills the assignment request, or meets the necessary word count.

8. Results

The results component of an approval workflow is the outcome of the review. But the result that’s desired may not be the one that occurs. In the vacation approval workflow, the result would either be the approval or denial of the time-off request. In the content approval workflow, the result would be the acceptance or rejection of the proposed content.

Now, let’s see what a workflow typically looks like.

The approval workflow

Approval workflows can take on many forms, ranging from checklists to detailed flowcharts to management programs. Regardless of their length or complexity, there are some key steps and stages needed for every approval process.

The trigger

The trigger is what initiates an approval workflow. It’s often the initial request or submission that prompts all subsequent actions. In the vacation approval workflow, the trigger is the employee submitting the time-off request. In the content approval workflow, the trigger event is the client or editor requesting the content.

Assign and notify the actors

After the trigger event, it’s time to assign the actors (if they aren’t already assigned) and notify them of their roles and tasks. In the case of the vacation approval workflow, the employee’s manager is the default gatekeeper. They will see the request when they review the request queue.

In the content approval workflow, a specific editor or project manager may be assigned to oversee the content creation project. They will delegate the work, and a notification will be generated that indicates the writer’s role and expectations within this workflow. If the editor or project manager doesn’t have final approval authority, that gatekeeper will also have to be defined.

Task and process execution

Once roles are defined, the actors will complete tasks as needed. Usually, all actors will have mini workflows to complete within a larger approval workflow. Tasks may or may not have deadlines as well.

In situations with deadlines, you should create a follow-up system or protocol to remind actors to complete their tasks. You can do this via email or notifications in workflow management software (more on that later).

In many cases, tasks must be completed in a specific sequence that doesn’t require the participation of all actors at once. If there’s an approval workflow, this usually implies there are several stages, which is why there’s a state component. In the example of the vacation approval workflow, the employee requesting time-off and the manager acting as gatekeeper would never be active at the same time in the process.


This stage of the workflow is usually when tasks for the next actor in the process are activated, and the state component changes. For example, in the vacation workflow example, the act of submitting the time-off request activates the review task for the manager.

Diverging approval path

Once input is submitted, it will either be approved or rejected based on its adherence to specific conditions or elements. In an ideal scenario, the input meets these standards, and the gatekeeper approves the request, activating tasks for the next actor in a longer workflow or completing the workflow and closing out the project. However, when a rejection occurs, it’s usually not final — instead, it changes the direction of the workflow.

In the vacation approval workflow, even if the employee’s time-off request is rejected, they will still want to use their vacation time. They may submit a request for alternate dates, or the manager may provide a list of dates that would be appropriate for the employee to take off.

If the content is rejected in the content approval workflow, there’s still a need for the content, and the work should continue. The editor or gatekeeper may provide edits to the writer or ask for an entirely new draft.

Armed with the knowledge of how an approval workflow functions, you can now understand what sets these workflows apart from other types of workflows.

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