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Task vs Process: Are they Actually Different?

The way we define processes and tasks vary, but the two are actually not that different. Are processes and tasks actually the same?

Two people process mapping workflow using post it notes

There are very few differences between tasks vs processes.

At first glance, processes and tasks feel like different things. They have to be, right? Otherwise, we would use them interchangeably. We usually tend to see tasks as short or straightforward activities we need to fulfil, while processes, most would agree, are considered to be more complex and repeatable.

The truth is that it only takes a few well-intentioned questions to begin seeing not only that different people have different definitions for what tasks and processes are - but that we also apply the terms to various scenarios inconsistently. Sometimes, we call a one-off event a process. Other times, we talk about simple tasks while blatantly ignoring there might be several complicated steps involved in making something happen.

In this article, we will explore whether there is a difference between a process and a task and where the differences might lie, and decide if these really are two separate things… or if it is all just a matter of perspective.

Defining a Task and Defining a Process

Let’s start by quickly going through what a task is, as the term feels more familiar for most and we seem to share a more common understanding of its meaning.

Typically, a task is “a piece of work that needs to be done”. Tasks are usually considered one’s duty and can be part of a larger project, although this is not always the case. For example, most of us will consider taking out the garbage a task. Other tasks could be things like mailing a letter, preparing a report, or taking the bus to work. There is also a responsibility aspect to tasks; they are usually assigned to us (sometimes by ourselves) and you are expected to encounter some difficulty when attempting to complete them.

What people define as a process, on the other hand, tends to be a little more elusive. The understanding often varies from person to person, and (unfortunately) the prospect of coming up with an agreement can often lead to frustration, because it's hard to find common ground when it’s shaking. However, in general, we think of processes as things to do which have several steps and are repeated over and over again.

At a glance, tasks seem to be shorter, while processes are longer. Although it seems both of them require a number of operations. But is there really a difference between the two? Because the more you think about them, the more similar they seem.

Let’s look at the way we understand processes, as there seems to be a bigger gap there. We mentioned a process is supposed to be re-run and is more complex. Let’s see if this is the case.

A Process is… Repeatable?

Some people think of processes as something that is repeatable, something you do over and over again. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing; one of the advantages of taking the same steps more than once is that they allow for a process (any process) to be measured more easily. The more data you have, the better analytics you will be able to create, and the better your predictions will be. Additionally, this replication will allow you to see whether there are any issues at a particular stage, address them, and modify the process to make it better.

However, many people also refer to one-off activities as being a process. For example, someone dealing with a divorce might say, “It’s a process that you go through”. It is unlikely they are planning on divorcing more than once (it happens, but few people expect it), yet they refer to it as a process. The same can apply to buying a house. You might be lucky enough to afford more than one property, but you don’t usually think of it as a repeatable thing. Although buying a house is more of a one-off activity, many people also talk about it as if it were a process and go through the different stages anticipating what will come next.

However, we can make things more complicated still. Many repeatable activities are not considered a process, even when they follow the description to the letter. For example, a lot of people do not see onboarding an employee as a process. They will see it more as a task consisting of a series of steps that need to be followed. The definition, in this case, becomes a little more obscure.

So is repeatability what defines a process? It can undoubtedly help, over time, if you are planning on measuring success. But it looks like it is not a way to define a process as opposed to a task (not in terms of how we talk about it, at least).

A Process is… Complex?

Many people will also describe processes as complex endeavours. Tasks are simple; processes are complicated. This is probably the definition you will hear the most if you ask the question to a random number of strangers. And it does seem appropriate, except… if you think about it, some people also describe smaller and easier operations as processes.

Suppose you want to cook a meal. For many of us, making food is an activity, or a task. Particularly if we have to do it every day, many times a day. However, there will always be those (especially the ones unfamiliar with the kitchen) who see this as a process, no matter how simple a dish is.

All meals follow a recipe. Would you say making beans on toast is a process? You would probably consider it a task. Something easy to plan and quick to prepare. But there are many steps you will need to take to complete this recipe (for instance, you need to warm the beans and toast the bread. These could even be seen as two independent procedures!). This is just one example of many similar activities we do on a daily basis and without much thought.

Making a cup of coffee involves a process, too. For instance, you will need to measure your brew ratio, grind the coffee, boil the water, place and wet the filter, pour, wait, and pour some more. If you have never prepared one, it is guaranteed you will call this a process. If you love coffee, this might not even be seen by you as a task. It’s just a thing you do, and you don’t even stop to think about it.

So a process is not necessarily more complex than a task. It seems we are, yet again, facing a problem. Could it be all just a matter of opinion? Perhaps processes and tasks are indeed exactly the same, and we use them interchangeably, no matter how much effort we put on being precise.

So, Are Tasks and Processes the Same?

Effectively, processes and tasks are the same thing but it is a matter of perspective and purpose.

If you are a business manager and you are looking at the way “tasks” are performed in your organization then you will undoubtedly be talking about “processes”.

But if you are an employee performing steps in a “process” you will undoubtedly see them as part of a “task”.

So does it matter? Yes it does. Because if we talk “process” to employees, we scare them, turn them off and falsely give them the perspective that we are about to try and control them. Whilst I argue in my book The Dirty Word that this is the wrong perception of process it’s a barrier we have to deal with. But if we talk “tasks” then employees understand and can relate to what we are talking about and no longer feel threatened.

So when we rollout process in a business the best way is not to mention the word process but instead get people using a daily electronic to-do-list and simply drop processes in there as tasks alongside their other tasks.

That is why in beSlick employees don’t see processes they just see tasks dropping into their daily to-do-list.


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