Using Backward Planning to Set Goals
If your goal is to become an account director within the next five years, where do you start your planning process? Or if your team needs to redesign the company's organizational structure, where do you begin?
In planning, most of us would usually start building our plan from start to finish. What do you have to do first, second, third, and so on? And by what date does each step need to be completed?
This is a solid form of Personal Goal Setting that works very well. When combined with the Golden Rules of Goal Setting, you have a motivating formula that can help you actively move yourself forward.
A New Approach
However, there's another simple but lesser-used method of goal setting that can be equally as powerful.
It's called backward planning, backward goal-setting, or backward design, and it's used quite often in education and training. The idea is to start with your ultimate objective, your end goal, and then work backward from there to develop your plan. By starting at the end and looking back, you can mentally prepare yourself for success, map out the specific milestones you need to reach, and identify where in your plan you have to be particularly energetic or creative to achieve the desired results.
It's much like a good presentation, when the presenter tells you where he's headed right at the beginning. Then, as the presentation unfolds, it's easy for you to follow the concepts and think critically about what's being said. If you have to figure out the main points as they come, your energy is often used up by just trying to keep up.
The Backward Planning Process
Here's how it works:
Step 1: Write down your ultimate goal. What specifically do you want to achieve, and by what date?
Example: "By January 1, 2015, I will be the key accounts director for Crunchy Chips International."
Step 2: Then ask yourself what milestone you need to accomplish just before that, in order to achieve your ultimate goal. What do you have to do, and by when, so that you're in a position to reach your final objective?
Example: "By September 30, 2013, I will successfully complete the executive training program offered by Crunchy Chips International."
Step 3: Then work backward some more. What do you need to complete before that second-to-last goal?
Example: "By March 1, 2013, I will submit my application for the executive training program, outlining my successes as a key accounts manager, and I will be accepted into the program."
Step 4: Work back again. What do you need to do to make sure the previous goal is reached?
Example: "By January 1, 2013, I will complete my second year as a key accounts manager with Crunchy Chips International, and I will earn the prestigious Key Accounts Manager of the Year award."
Step 5: Continue to work back, in the same way, until you identify the very first milestone that you need to accomplish.
Examples: "By January 1, 2012, I will complete my first year as a key accounts manager with Crunchy Chips International, and I will be rewarded for my performance by gaining responsibility for clients purchasing over $10 million per year."
"By January 1,2010, I will be promoted to key accounts manager with Crunchy Chips International, and I will have responsibility for clients purchasing over $1 million per quarter."
When you read a backward plan, it doesn't look much different from a traditional forward plan. However, creating a backward plan is VERY different. You need to force yourself to think from a completely new perspective, to help you see things that you might miss if you use a traditional, forward-looking chronological process.
This can also help you avoid spending time on unnecessary or unproductive activities along the way. Furthermore, it highlights points of tension within the plan, showing where you'll need to be particularly creative to make the next step successfully.
On the surface, backward planning doesn't seem much different from traditional goal-setting processes. You start with a basic vision, and then you ask yourself what needs to be done to achieve that vision. You can read your plan from the beginning to the end, or from the end back to the beginning.
Backward planning, however, is more than reversing the direction of your traditional plan. It's about adopting a different perspective and, perhaps, identifying different milestones as a result. It's a great supplement to traditional planning, and it gives you a much fuller appreciation of what it may take to achieve success. After all, the more alternatives you have, the better your final plan will likely be.
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