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Dr. Emmett Brown: Marty! I need you to go back with me!
Marty McFly: Where?
Dr. Emmett Brown: Back to the Future!

Great Scott!

In the epic 1985 film ‘Back to the Future’, Doc Brown avoids being gunned down by angry terrorists because someone from the future had a different plan in store. By defining the future outcome he wanted — in this case one that included a living, breathing Doc Brown — and then mapping out and taking the necessary steps, the future Marty McFly was able ‘reverse plan’ the outcome he desired for the present.

In the complex business world, sometimes the right solution can only be found by taking a step back, imagining the future you want and then going to work to make sure you achieve it. And if possible, do it in a DeLorean!

While this may sound like something that only Hollywood could conjure up, agile enthusiasts actually make use of similar methodologies. Reverse planning is an agile way of planning that starts with the end goal in mind and then works backwards to formulate a plan of action.

Recent studies show that for complex problems, reverse planning is more effective than forward planning. It creates higher expectations for reaching goals and reduces pressure while working to achieve them.

Reverse planning or backwards planning, merges the world of agile with the reality of business planning. It marries the flexibility of backlog-based task prioritization, with the rigidness of the business world’s expectations for specific deliveries and hard deadlines. That way, planning is centered around delivery milestones, beginning with the delivery itself and working backwards from there. Inevitable changes are taken in stride and plans are quickly adjusted to reflect new priorities.

In his famous book, ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’, Stephen Covey explains that highly effective individuals plan backwards, they: ‘…start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.”

Reverse planning doesn’t just improve processes in the world of business and technology. In fact, institutions like the Federal Government and the US Armed Forces have been using reverse engineering to streamline planning processes and improve outcomes for years now.  In fact, the Federal Government advocates reverse planning in procurement processes as a way to reduce the huge gaps often seen between final product and the desired outcome.

Now remember — you don’t need to be a Hollywood superstar, a 4-star general or a government bureaucrat to leverage the huge benefits reverse planning provides. In fact, it’s probably easier than you ever  imagined.

Here’s a simple 3-step plan that will help you start using reverse planning to manage your projects more effectively.

Plan backwards 

Begin with a description of what your solution should accomplish when it’s up and running. Don’t get bogged down in small details — keep it simple. It’s not about defining every small step required, but rather painting a crisp  picture of what the successful system will do. An example of this could be reducing the time to get back to a customer inquiry by 50%.

Figure out what steps need to be taken

Start mapping out all the steps and resources required to achieve your goal. Now sequence each step, starting from the end and working your way backwards until you reach the present. Identify specific steps that work towards the same outcome and cluster together (AKA “Epics”). That way you can break them down into tasks and add them into sprints that will help your team deliver faster.

Build your deadline-driven timeline

Now that you’ve got your sequences mapped out and clustered together, start assigning due dates for milestones and supporting steps. With the deadline as an anchor, work backwards so that you have a clear delivery plan, including all tasks and effort estimations in place. You may need to shuffle things around a bit until you have a final plan.

Clarizen Go makes it easy to reverse plan. Teams can use milestones to reflect important delivery dates and ensure that they stay on top of deadlines. Boards and stages are then personalized to define each of the steps and sequences required to deliver on time. This planning process starts from the end delivery and works its way backward to the present. Epics will help you break down the project into digestible, bite-sized tasks that will encourage ownership and keep your teams focused.

Yoav Boaz
Yoav Boaz, VP Product