Think forward, plan backward

04 December, 2017

The power of reverse planning, and how to build a last-to-first action plan

“To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now so that the steps you take are always in the right direction” – Stephen Covey

You may have heard that the most important step of all is the first one. This certainly holds true when it comes to taking action. But with regards to planning and organisation, the most important step of all might just be the last.

Traditionally, most of us tend to plan for goals in chronological order – step 1, step 2, step 3, and so on. As it turns out, in some cases, it might actually be better to start at the end: identify the final step needed to accomplish your objective, and work your way backwards from there. “Backward planning”, as it is called, can be a powerful tool, boosting both enthusiasm and follow-through.

The U.S. Army, which makes extensive use of backward planning, describes the process in its Troop Leading Procedures as, “Reverse planning involves starting with the operation’s end state and working backward in time.  Leaders begin by identifying the last step, the next-to-last step, and so on. They continue until they reach the step that begins the operation. It answers the question — Where do we eventually want to be?”

So, this week, my message focuses on the ins and outs of backward planning – why it’s worth exploring, and how to go about it.

A recently published study – conducted by researchers from the Peking University HSBC Business School, Korea University Business School, and University of Iowa – found that “compared with forward planning, backward planning not only led to greater motivation, higher goal expectancy, and less time pressure but also resulted in better goal-relevant performance”. Thus, simply altering how you plan for your objectives can have a huge impact on the outcome.

The advantages were seen to be even greater when it came to complex goals (as compared with simple goals).

So, be it a crucial project at work or a personal growth target, here are five key aspects to keep in mind as you try your hand at backward planning:

1. Visualise future success

Typically, the motivation level is generally highest at the beginning of any endeavour. As time goes on, the initial enthusiasm begins to wear thin: the goal seems unbelievably distant, and there is no guarantee of success. That is where backward planning comes to the rescue. To plan in reverse, you must first imagine that the goal has already been accomplished. By visualising the achievement of your aim, you work with the assumption that you will succeed, which increases self-belief and narrows the massive gap between “now” and “the end”. Success is possible, even likely – after all, you have already experienced it in your mind! In other words, backward planning helps you forecast wins instead of losses. This can be a game-changing shift: not only does it make the forthcoming process much more real in your mind, it also keeps you feeling more optimistic and driven, as compared with forward planning.

You could also use this future perspective to drive long-term strategic planning. Fast-forward to two/five/ten years in the future: what has your team/department achieved by this time? Describe your success in detail – products, services, processes, and markets. Now, reverse-create the game plan that enabled you to pull off this victory. Not only is this a truly inspirational exercise for everyone involved, it also helps to identify the innovations and initiatives that will take you from good to great.

2. Unlock greater clarity

The study I mentioned earlier found that preparing backwards – be it in the academic or professional world – helped people see the pathway to success far more clearly and stick to their original plan until the end. The simple fact that they knew what needed to be done at each stage actually helped them get the tasks done. It also curbed anxiety stemming from the fear of the unknown.

The clarity benefit applies to potential problems as well. By thinking through a project all the way until its completion, you are able to unearth the kinds of obstacles that are likely to crop up. Accordingly, you can plan on how to tackle these issues – if possible, pre-emptively. Thus, if and when things go wrong, the shock is dulled: you already foresaw this problem (or something like it), and you have a pretty good idea of what to do about it. This preparedness helps you take things in your stride and keep moving forward.

3. Get the timing right

For complex, long-term projects, backward planning can prove to be invaluable when it comes to time management. The reverse lens allows you to see the precise cut-off time by which each step needs to be completed in order to meet the deadline, thus helping you stay on track. Experts also recommend building in “buffer zones” to account for unexpected delays and obstacles, which are part and parcel of life at any workplace.

Keep in mind that this benefit isn’t restricted just to professional assignments. Even when it comes to managing your tasks and time, working backwards can help you keep up with the clock. Identify your target time and take it from there – and remember to account for transition times between tasks. For instance:

  • You need to be home by 7 PM for an important family event
  • You need to leave the workplace by 6.30 PM (25 minutes from workplace to home, 5 minutes of buffer time for traffic)
  • You need to leave your desk by 6.25 (5 minutes from desk to parking lot)
  • You need to send end-of-day updates between 6.10 to 6.25 PM
  • You need to wrap up the team meeting by 6.10 PM
  • You need to start the team meeting by 5 PM (1 hour of scheduled time, 10 minutes for any spill-overs)

And so on….until you reach the kick-off step, i.e., the first task you will need to tackle. And just like that, you know exactly what you need to be doing when, in order to complete your work for the day and still make it home on time.

4. Maintain perspective

Backward planning brings the big picture front and centre. Be it the five-year objectives for your department or the ten-year target for your own career, having a reverse plan in place keeps you goal oriented and allows you to evaluate present-day decisions based on their future implications. For instance, if your professional aim is to run a global sales team by 2022, what does the pathway to success look like? If one of the steps is to “get more experience working with international teams”, then you may want to focus on smaller projects or lateral moves that will help you gain this – rather than simply trying to land bigger projects or the next “logical” promotion. Make sure your career ladder is leading to the right destination – if not, you can switch ladders and even take a step or two down if needed.

5. Begin at the end

Now that you know the very tangible benefits of backward planning, why not give it a go?

  • Picture your goal: define what you want to accomplish and envision it. Describe it in as much detail as possible.
  • Reverse plan the steps: pinpoint the final step you will need to accomplish in order to complete the goal, then work backwards from there until you reach the first and nearest task. Alternatively, create a randomised list of all the steps required, then put them in sequential order from last to first.
  • Add time and resources: begin by identifying the target date for the achievement of your goal. Then, assign timelines and resources for each task. Do make sure these are realistic, and remember to add in buffer zones.

In his widely-read book, The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People, Dr. Stephen Covey emphasises the importance of beginning with the end in mind – it’s habit number 2 on his list. Backward planning takes that mantra one step further: envision what you want to achieve, then use that to build a last-to-first plan of action. Along with greater clarity and long-term perspective, this planning method offers you continued motivation, stronger self-belief, and the ability to manage time more effectively.

As always, I look forward to your thoughts.


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