Working backwards moves you forward
“Begin with the end in mind.” Stephen Covey
Success depends on your ability to envision a preferred future. Organizational leaders define success before it happens.
Drucker famously said, “Management is doing things right; leadership is doing the right things.”
But, what happens after you determine the “right things?”
After success is identified
After determining the “right things” to do, work backwards so you can move forward.
Suppose the right thing to do is leadership development.
First, identify the leadership qualities your organization values.
Don’t ask, “What do our leaders need or lack?” Thats working from what is to what isn’t.
Ask, “What leadership qualities/skills/behaviors do we value?” After identifying your valued leader-attributes, you’re ready to work backwards. Now you can develop a plan and program to get you there.
Surprisingly, working backwards is proactive rather than reactive. It enables you to resist the tyranny of the urgent or chasing the leadership trend of the day.
Working backwards always ends up with identifying the people required to move you forward. However, if you begin with the people, you’re limited by what is. On the other hand, working backwards opens the door to what could be.
Working backwards from a desired objective fuels vision and lifts organizations above current limitations. In my opinion, working backwards defines you and your leadership.
What are some of the right things to do, i.e. leadership development? You might consider the right things to do in relationships, organizations, families, or social media.
The tyranny of the urgent frequently causes leaders to lose sight of desired ends. How can leaders keep the end in mind when they are buried in today’s urgency’s?
One of the things I’ve learned from Glen Townsend (http://ardaich.wordpress.com) and Kate Hindes (http://girlmeetsgeek.com) is the power and importance of having an identifiable cause. A specific cause people can identify with and act upon to help you out, something that inspires them.
How I applied this was I am creating a reality TV show (http://srkinc.com/treatment.pdf) to help job seekers learn how to find work in the new economy. My cause is to help create priceless employees all over the world by showing them how to understand and communicate their value.
I was at a Job Fair at a local tech college for sound/music people. Almost everyone that came to my booth was excited and signed up. The booths next to mine were Mall of America and Best Buy. Even will all their billions spent on branding they couldn’t get as many volunteers as I did.
They signed up for the cause. We all know this economy has to get better and someone has to do something about it. My cause is just that – doing something about it.
My suggestion: lead with cause.
Thanks for adding your links and perspective. I appreciate and embrace your idea, “lead with cause.” Well said.
I wish you success in your endeavor.
…and it’s when vision remains the thread through the entire process that fuels passion in those engaged in the process.
I’m always thankful when you stop in… 🙂
Good morning Dan,
Such an interesting twist of words — “working backwards”. For years, many pundits decried anything that even mentioned backwards. I think the outlook has changed. You see more and more large organizations visioning by looking at their past AND the broader past to see what has been learned.
So I encourage leaders to see both their past to be proactive AND the past of their competitors. You can go even further and use history as the endless fuel for reinvention.
Most of all, I do think that you are correct that it helps “prevent the tyranny” of the urgent. Only one caution, don’t use the past as an excuse for inaction!
In your usual style you leave us with a kick in the pants. 🙂
You know I wish you success in your endeavors,
Kate is a featured blogger on LF. Check out her blog at http://katenasser.com/articles/
Dan – I agree wholeheartedly with “begin with the end in mind.” But then, to me, the second step is “start from where you are.” You need to know where you’re going, your Destination. You need to be totally grounded in your current Reality. Then you start connecting the dots: identify your Opportunities and move into Action. Reality-Opportunity-Action-Destination, a complete ROAD.
Nice acronym… ROAD! Love it. Although I think my acronym would be DROA (not nearly as eloquent)
Funny you talk about “connecting the dots.” In its original form this post include comments about connecting the dots. Great minds!! 😉
Mark is a featured blogger on Leadership Freak. Check out his blog at: http://fastgrowth.biz/blog/
Very good post.
“How can leaders keep the end in mind when they are buried in today’s urgency’s”?
==> they can do that- if they have an organized mind and style to work:
==> The personal project (long term)
==> The bases to reach the results (short term)
==>you can work backwards (only extracting the right things, techniques learned from different situations, abilities of resolving problems occurred in your experience)-which can help you on creating the future.
All the best,
Thank you for your encouragement. Your participation encourages me.
In particular, I like the idea of milestones as a way of protecting leaders from being over run by the tyranny of the urgent. Makes sense to me.
All the best,
One of the things I tell people in my LinkedIn lecture is to read their discussion backwards to pick out errors. What does this have to do with your topic. If you would have read yours backwards you would have picked up on the “Y” missing off the word ready.
“leader-attributes, you’re read to work backwards”
Part of envisioning the future is also to envision the risks and to plan to mitigate those risks. This helps minimize the fire fighting as it erupts.
Because the future always holds the unknown you must be prepared for what it throws at you.
This also better prepares you to tell others about what the future holds and to get them to follow you. A strong leader will tell them that there are certain risks involved but here are the plans just in case. This instills confidence in the team in the leader. They will say the leader is watching out for us and trying to protect us.
This will allow the team to think about the risks as well and design ways to avoid them.
So yes start with a point in the future and work backwards to lay the path. Then move forward to achieve the goal.
As in football, the team does not just look at making the next 10 yards. They have the goal and a touchdown in mind. They have started with the end zone and then looked at field position. Then it is how do we get to the end zone from here.
Love your first paragraph. Nicely crafted and thanks for the advice on picking missing “y’s” and such.
You packed loads of useful info in your comment. Thank you.
I like the feel of your statements about start in the future, work backwards and then move forward. Thats a rich paragraph.
I’ve always found anticipating risks a bit risky. If there isn’t a compelling vision and a leader with the courage to champion the vision talking about risks may kill progress. Having said that, I have to turn around and say you are exactly right.
In addition, formulating and communicating your plan to address risks can be a powerful leadership tool. Nicely said.
Thanks for adding value,
There is a right thing for leaders to do while also keeping in mind their end goals and not sacrificing for the urgency at hand. And that is setting a right example. Doesn’t matter if we always know the answers or not, as much as it matters how we deal with things in life. Both the joyful and the challenging.
I often use the phrase in my talks, “Little eyes are watching.” And I don’t just mean the children we are often working with, who intimately learn how to deal with challenge and stress in life based on the adult examples around them. (Grandparents and teachers, kids learn far more from you than you realize.) If you think you’re a good person, if you think that you’re a good leader, if you want to make the world a better place – do you really mean that? No matter what happens? Even if a situation lets you down?
“Little eyes” can be anyone you lead, anyone who looks up to you whether you realize it or not, anyone who judges you (whether you realize it or not), anyone with less experience than you, anyone who can’t quite wrap their head around “it” just yet and anyone outside looking in. What you do reflects back to you, and the world around you will shift to respond to that example you put out. In many ways, humans are like mirrors to each other. A well grounded and positive example is one of the most powerful and primary responsibilities of any leader.
I sense such passion in your comment. Thanks for pressing us toward being an example to others by keeping the big picture in mind.
I get the feeling you could have written about being an example. 🙂
Best to you,
Julia is a new featured blogger for Leadership Freak. She generously takes time to share her insights and perspective. Thanks for all you do.
Read her bio and contact info at http://leadershipfreak.wordpress.com/julia
Thanks Dan, and you are right: BE-ing is a word I prefer. It denotes a way of life, not just an occasional effort.
Hope your week has had a great start!
Thanks for highlighting this important point!
Earlier in my career I just assumed this was how everyone worked – unfortunately I’ve since learned that this isn’t always a given.
If I might add my two cents: This is partly why it is so critical for leadership to provide strong and consistent mission, vision, strategy, and values. (I realize that these words are often met with cynicism as “management buzzwords,” but when they are real and substantial they can be a real difference-maker)
Mission: Why do we exist? What is our purpose?
Vision: What does that look like (long, medium, short term)
Strategy: How are we going to get there? How will we measure progress?
Values: What is most important about the way we get there?
Having these things clearly established, and communicating them frequently and consistently tells your people:
– Here is what is most important – this is what you should be spending your time on
– This is what we expect in terms of how you get your work done
– This is how you fit into the bigger picture – how you contribute to something much larger than yourself
– When there is a trade off to be made, this will help you make that decision
– and much more…
These things help create the end state from which we can work backwards!
The tyranny of the urgent frequently causes leaders to lose sight of desired ends. How can leaders keep the end in mind when they are buried in today’s urgency’s?
This dovetails nicely with the book that the Tallahassee Leadership Book Club is reading this month: Switch (www.heathbrothers.com). I have just started the audio version, but I was struck by an example of a leader of a hospital system who was mortified at the 1 in 10 “error” rate for medical procedures. He told the hospital system that they would save 100,000 lives by “x” date. The phrase that stuck with me is: “some is not a number and soon is not a time.” That is the perfect conceptualization of keeping an end in mind despite the sheer urgency of the medical arena.
Working backwards provides you road map travelled,less travelled or not travelled. It actually becomes easy to predict future looking at history. Similarly as history proives context and strategy, looking backwards, provides key factors, that were involved in making things happen.It gives complete picture of actions, decisions, circumstacnes and resources and their results. When you work backwards, it becomes easy to reflect yourself in future. Working backwards is nothing but analysing, evaluating and weighing the factors of success or failure. So afterwards forward path becomes clear. We clearly demarcate where we are and where we should be. And ultimately it becomes easier to connect with our purpose. When we connect with our purpose, then passion shape our effort to achieve our purpose effectively and efficiently.
Begin with the end in mind. I agree and when urgency comes it becomes difficult to follow pattern of set rules. We need to finish it first then we can switch over to other task. Usually, begin with the end in mind needs planning, organising and controling. For that you need time to do that, Whereas in urgency, you are supposed to do it immediately, So it does not require planning or organising. So, in this sense, urgency hinders the philosophy of begin with the end in mind. And it diverts you from your actual purpose.
Working backwards as you described is the best way to avoid the tyranny of the urgent. If you begin with the end in mind as Covey describes it, you set a vision of success. Once you set the vision, set goals and specific actions to hit those goals. Covey also talks about Quadrant 2 activities. These are the activities that are important but not urgent and these are the ones that will help you achieve long term success. Today’s leader must have the self-discipline to spend enough time in Quadrant 2 to be successful. I’ve written more on this at
Gorgeous inspiration for the change I have in mind, you just resolved my problem of where to start to pinpoint my vision and the way to achieve it: THANKS!
In my systems thinking practice “working backwards” is the centerpiece of “Interactive Planning.” After formulating the “Mess” the organization is in, the next step in planning is creating an “Idealized Design.” In other words, if you could have any organization you wanted NOW, what would that organization look like. The “working backwards” piece comes in designing an ideal state and then “working backwards” to where you are NOW, not sometime in the future.
This framework of systems thinking is neither Proactive nor Reactive, it is Interactive.
I’m so glad you are part of this conversation. Thank you for bringing your perspective and challenging the “status quo.”
As I wrote this post, planning kept coming to mind. I was interested to see if those with planning expertise either affirmed or criticized my comments.
I think you did a bit of both. 🙂
You’ve just seen one reason, among many, that I’m delighted Jim is a featured contributor on Leadership Freak. Take a moment to visit his website: http://www.leemanngroup.com/
Interesting post and perspectives.
“Begin with an end in mind” was the second habit. The first was “proactive”. I believe SC had a good reason to kick start the paradigm shift with addressing first the “self limiting” beliefs and ethos held by people.
As I read your post and juxtaposed with “solution focussed” methodology in how we can navigate our journey, I wonder if we can do away with having to see the rear view mirror. What if I said, in moving forward, we should forget about history, how it had worked before, why it failed, and all the excuses, particularly no-time, that can hold us back.
I spent my first 6 months on the job, trying to get the CEO to map out the strategic imperatives to get a clear idea of the “end” and what would guide our direction towards it. Nothing much has changed over the last 6 years. I think doing “the right thing” should start with getting the “right” person to captain the ship. Hence, I am lost with your take, “Working backwards always ends up with identifying the people required to move you forward.”. Is this not what it is all about? – from making money, running a non profit, fighting crime, to saving the earth from destruction.
I am with Jim, in saying working backwards is purely a matter for “planning”. You think through in a process and systemic context, as you would in Project Management. However, the tough part lies in Execution – moving forward or progressing – via actions, resourcing, evaluating, tweaking, solving, motivating, celebrating, etc. And, to all this efficiently, productively and successfully, you need “good” people who can double as good managers and leaders. It is people working in harmony with the espoused values and in a collective spirit that will see them through in thick and thin of times. When people compromise on the integrity of this philosophy – belief and commitment – through personal interest and selfish agendas, things fall apart. Looking back, then makes no sense because until you remove that “limiting” thought in the people or replace the person in question, moving forward will remain elusive. You may be moving but you will never reach the end.
The main issue in most organisations is that the Management don’t know, either ignorantly or deliberately, the difference between “Effectiveness and Efficiency”. Let’s face it, how many have seen a blueprint of a strategic business plan. It’s always business as usual, even among public companies. If we are serious about good corporate governance, why do we still see Executives failing in Execution !
I am just thinking aloud. Given the bursting energy and dynamism we see in the future generational workforce, can we still keep harping on looking backwards with what has worked. I can see it their eyes. We have nothing great to show them how successful we have been in taking care of things. They are at the centre of the information explosion and we still want to keep them in the dark and under control
What if, given a chance and without compromising the values, the millenials can better the “his-story” in achievement. Perhaps, it is time leaders stepped aside and let the creative and innovative brilliance of their people to have a bigger say on how they could move forward.
Yuva, two of your observations struck a chord for me…
“…we should forget about history, how it had worked before, why it failed, and all the excuses, particularly no-time, that can hold us back.” How often have we heard, ‘we tried that here before’ or ‘that’s not the way we have done it here’ etc. Great way to slow things down.
Management don’t know, either ignorantly or deliberately, the difference between “Effectiveness and Efficiency”. The deliberate piece is more concerning because I believe most everyone can always learn. When deliberately, leadership puts the brakes on enthusiasm and potential passion, that kills on many levels. I have witnessed the ‘death by study after study’ under the guise of being thorough when the end goal was status quo. Sad, but happens.
Thanks for your post!