How Backwards Planning Can Move You Forward

The first time I heard the term “backwards planning” I thought it was a mistake.  The last thing I wanted was to be backwards about my planning.  But that’s not what they meant at all.  Today we’ll talk about what backwards planning is and how you can use this technique to develop a successful plan every time.


Begin With the End in Mind

In a nutshell, Backwards Planning means what Steven Covey calls beginning with the end in mind – know what you want and when you want it, then work backwards from that point to figure out all the things that need to happen first to make it come true.

The Military used this method in World War II when planning for D-Day.  D was the day the assault was to happen.  For everything to go right, they knew that at D-1 day all the soldiers have get from the ships to the landing craft; before that, at D-2 they had to load the ships, so D-4 all the boats had to be ready for loading, etc., that sort of thing.  It was backwards planning.

Thanksgiving Example: T-Day

Since we’re not likely to plan a major amphibious operation any time soon, let’s take an example a little closer to home and we’ll walk through the steps.  Since it will be Thanksgiving in a few days, let’s plan for T-day.

1.  Visualize the Desired Result.  First, visualize what the end looks like:  Kickoff for the game between the Cowboys and Panthers is at 4:30 this Thursday; we’re all on the couch well fed, happy, and the kitchen is clean.

2.  List Tasks and Times in Reverse Order.  Next – working backwards from there, list the necessary steps and how long each will take to get to that point.

  • 4:00 PM  Grandma insists the kitchen is clean before the game, and cleaning is a team effort, so need to plan 30 minutes go get it done after dinner, that means we have to be done eating by 4:00
  • 2:30 PM  The meal itself? Let’s figure 90 minutes of good eating and conversation, so we have to sit down by 2:30.
  • 9:00 AM  Of course the turkey has to be cooked first; according to, an 18 lb stuffed turkey will take 4:30 to cook at 325 degrees, so turkey has to go in no later than 9:00 AM
  • 12:00 AM  Oh, and it’s a frozen turkey.  We’ll have to use the cold water method – we will need about 9 hours for that.

So somewhere around midnight Wednesday night, we need to pull the turkey out of the freezer and stick it in some cold water to start thawing.

What we’ve just done is identify the critical path of what has to happen to get us on the couch by kickoff.

3.  Plan Supporting Tasks the same way.  In the remaining steps, you might want to do the same thing for any supporting jobs, like when to make the green bean casserole.

4.  Assign Responsibility.  And lastly, figure out who is responsible for making each step happen.

The Takeaway

When planning for your next event, start with the end in mind.  Picture what you want it to look like, then work backwards to identify what needs to be done and when in order to achieve your vision.  Investing a little time to do this up front will significantly increase the likelihood that what you get at the end was what you were hoping for in the beginning.

Good luck and Happy Thanksgiving

That’s your RSL Leadership Tip for the day.

Question: How would you improve on this method to make it even better?

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4 thoughts on “How Backwards Planning Can Move You Forward”

  1. Another good example of backwards planning is a job I did Saturday. I was delivering hay bales with a farmer to a customer of his. We needed to fit 450 square bales ( appx. 1’by 3′ and 60lbs) into a small hay loft 12′ off the ground. We knew we needed to get all the bales into the loft, stack them so that they would not fall over, and also leave room to get to the doors. Because we planned backwards we were able to accomplish the task with room to spare.

    1. Yes, we commonly think of backwards planning as a time-based thought process, but it can also be a good approach for managing objects and space. The key is getting a clear mental image of what the final product looks like, and working backwards from there.

  2. To improve on the method, I suggest not only planning backwards, but also forwards. If possible have one team plan backwards and another plan forwards and when they are both ready, have them meet and compare notes, that way a step is less likely to be forgotten.

    1. That’s an interesting concept; it can’t hurt to have two groups looking at the problem from different perspectives and using the ideas of both to come up with the best solution. Backwards planning will give you the latest time you can start doing something to get it done on time; forward planning may help you see current opportunities and help you get ahead of the power curve. Just important to think it all the way through and allow room for error along the way! Thanks for the comment!

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