The pocket guide to backward planning for succeeding with work projects

If there is one thing successful people will tell you, is that they don’t leave things to chance. They do strategise and plan their work. I have had the chance to meet a bunch of them, and I can tell you that nobody starts their planning with a work breakdown structure. They instead start with the end in mind as Stephen Covey said. They do what is known as backward planning.
This is how to do backward planning for your work projects: 

  1. Start by thinking of what you’d like to have happened - what wild success looks like.
  2. Pick a date by which this is to become a reality in the world. An actual date, not the end of next quarter but the actual date as in the day, month and year. 
  3. Plot that in the calendar and then work backwards thinking “for this to happen, what else would have to be true just before?” This is the question you keep focusing on and asking yourself (and your team) about. Note that this is not about what is everything we need to do but what is the step immediately before. 
  4. Assign a date to each of those intermediate deadlines/outcomes and keep doing that working backwards until you get to today.
  5. As you assign dates, make sure to not make those deadlines too tight, allow a bit of slack. The goal is to get them done, not to stress yourself into inaction.
Let’s wrap this up with an example to better help you implement:

  • Do a great presentation for the board and have them approve your proposal.
  • Finalise presentation slides.
  • Have an informal meeting with the chairman to get feedback.
  • Create draft presentation slides.
  • Consider possible objections from the board and come up with ways to address them in our presentation.
  • Gather research data and formulate the strongest argument the data can support in our favour.
  • Formulate our proposal and run that by the team internally to ensure we have covered off all the required items that must be approved by the board for the initiative to take off the ground.
Finally, here are a few more power tips

  • To make this even more useful and straightforward, ensure there is at least an intermediate deadline each week between today and the final deadline. 
  • Allow time between deadlines for people to receive, review and comment on information, or provide input and setup times to meet with you as needed. For example, don’t assume today that you can meet with the chairman of your company in two days and that they’ll have the time you need them to devote to your request. Instead, allow yourself as much time as possible to set things up - but still, keep to your overall deadline. In our simple example, this might mean trying to set up the meeting now before you do the brainstorming or have the draft slides and all that because it will probably take 2-3 weeks to get to meet them anyway.
And now you know how to manage the process from start to finish. You plan it backwards and you execute and track it from the start. 

Where most people stumble or fall short in their projects (assuming they’ve not had format project management training or they don’t run a project management office for a living), is that they assume that because projects are done in steps from the beginning, that’s how they are to plan them also. What then happens is something doesn’t go “to plan” and that derails them completely. They run out of time, or they end up having to cut corners. That wouldn't have happened if they actually planned backwards and executed from the start to the end.

Try it out in your next project and see for yourself.

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