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Backward Goal Setting and Project Management

written by: Finn Orfano • edited by: Michele McDonough • updated: 4/21/2013

If there is a huge project lined up, and you do not know where to start, you might want to consider backward planning. This effective tool begins with the end for a change!

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    Why Start at the End?

    Many times, during the course of a project, the end-result seems so far away and impossible to reach. Through backward planning, one may be able to overcome this feeling and feel great and satisfied by completing each step in the process.

    For example, if the project includes the installation of a machine in a factory, where would the process begin? On the other hand, if the team needs to work on its organizational structure, where would it begin?

    In such cases, try using the simple yet powerful tool of backward planning. This tool helps achieve the same result as normal planning. The main advantage of using this tool is that it lessens the complications and causes less frustration, meaning high levels of project success.

    The tool is also known as backward goal-setting and backward design and is often used in project management scenarios. It's also commonly used by educators. The idea is to start with the ultimate goal or objective and move backwards from there to develop the plan.

    By doing so, a person can mentally prepare himself for success and map out specific milestones that need to be achieved. Additionally, this tool also allows someone to identify where he has to be energetic and creative in order to achieve the desired results in the plan.

    The whole process of backward planning is similar to a presentation. During a good presentation, if the presenter informs you of the ultimate goal, it would be easier for you to understand and think critically about what is being presented. However, if you only come to know the aim of the presentation as it unfolds, you would be spending a lot of energy in just trying to keep up, leaving no room for critical thinking.

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    Process of Backward Planning

    • Write down the ultimate goal. The first step may take some time to formulate. It is important to be as specific as possible. Moreover, ensure the goal is realistic. Once the objective is clear, decide the date by which the goal should be achieved. For example, by November 1, the new machinery would be implemented.
    • Next, it is important to think over what all needs to be completed to accomplish the ultimate goal. For example, to reach the goal of implementation, the manager needs to complete testing of the new machinery. In our example, the testing of the new machinery would be complete by September 30.
    • Work backward some more. Think over what needs to be completed before the second-to-last goal. For example, by February 1, the new machinery would have completed its manufacturing process.
    • Work backward some more to decide what needs to be done to make sure the previous goal is achieved. For example, by January 1, all planning stages would be complete to decide what the machinery would be.
    • Continue to work backward until you come to a stage where you have reached the first milestone. For example, new machinery for packaging is needed in the factory.

    Reading such a plan does not look very different from a traditional forward plan. However, making a backward plan can be very difficult: You need to force yourself to think from a different perspective to ensure nothing is being missed out. Following this tool also helps saving time on unproductive activities along the way. In reality, backward planning is just about reversing the direction of a traditional plan.

    The tool takes up planning by looking at the work timeline. If the project is seen from a finished point of view, it is easier to see the necessity of sticking to a self-imposed timetable. The method may take some time before you get used to it. However, once done, this tool ensures that many obstacles are avoided.

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    Pros and Cons of Backward Planning

    Backward Planning Pros:

    • The backward planning tool is helpful when there is no real direction the project team can head toward.
    • It helps attain personal satisfaction as each step is completed in the process.
    • It lessens the amount of frustration and complications that are involved in the planning stage, as many projects fail due to complications in the initial stage.
    • The backward planning tool helps point out milestones that need to be achieved in the process.
    • The backward planning tool helps decide a time line or time period for completing the tasks.
    • The backward planning tool helps the team in understanding concepts easily.

    Cons:

    • The backward planning tool can be complex, complicated, and confusing during its initial stage.
    • The backward planning tool is a little more time-consuming.