How Working Backwards Can Move Us Forward

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"I write the last line, and then I write the line before that. I find myself writing backwards for a while, until I have a solid sense of how that ending sounds and feels. You have to know what your voice sounds like at the end of the story, because it tells you how to sound when you begin."
—author John Irving in a 2012 interview with The Economist

I was once fortunate enough to hear Irving talk in person at Georgetown University about this. I recall thinking what an amazing thought process—he was describing the last scene of A Prayer for Owen Meany and a bizarre death that takes place. "How did this character get there?" Irving asked himself.

Lately, I've come around to Irving's process—a "roadmap in reverse" some have called it. My very enjoyable summer vacation started with finding a good return flight from London. A successful event I put together started with choosing a comfortable place where everyone could end up.

Of course, this isn't a new theory, especially in business. Here's an article from the May 1985 Harvard Business Review:

"The 'backward' approach I advocate rests on the premise that the best way to design usable research is to start where the process usually ends and then work backward. So we develop each stage of the design on the basis of what comes after it, not before...

"This procedure takes time for both managers and researchers. But determining where you want to go, then working backward to figure out how to get there, is likely to yield more valuable data leading to fruitful decisions."

Shifting to the present, in B2B publisher Randall-Reilly's excellent 6-minute video on Marketing Toward a Desired Outcome, the narrator tells of Ned who works as marketing director for Sophie's Super Software. His website had plenty of visitors and a low bounce rate. Click-thru rates and email opens were strong, and constant traffic came to his booths. But there was one problem: He wasn't driving revenue.

"Obviously, impressive results don't equal increased revenue. Ned needed to align his marketing efforts to what actually drives sales. He decided to work backwards from the point of sale to uncover where his marketing was falling short.  

"First he asked himself, 'What is the typical sale process?' He realized a sale was preceded by a demo of [the] software. So if a demo was as close as he could get to the sale, how could he generate more demos? To generate leads for demos, Ned could drive phone calls or form submissions. His sales team tended to convert better with forms because they weren't always available to answer the phone so how could he get more form submissions.

"The answer was to get his product in front of the right prospects. So his next question was, 'How do I reach the right prospects?..."

And so on. Two other innovators have espoused this process. Jeff Bezos asked the following in a 2012 video interview: "How are we going to work backwards from customers and build a great service or a great product? That's a key element to invention..."

And LinkedIn co-founder Reid Hoffman has also spoken about this method. "It starts with, what is the end result that you want to have happen?" he asked. Hoffman apparently played games of strategy as a child and knowing how those games worked taught him the type of "reverse-causal thought pattern he espouses."

One of the late Nobel prize-winning, British playwright Harold Pinter's best plays is Betrayal. It begins at the end of the story and works its way "back" to the beginning. It's very powerful. Once you see the outcome, you can focus on how the people got there. Makes sense that it also works for business.

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Ronn Levine began his career as a reporter for The Washington Post and has won numerous writing and publications awards since. Most recently, he spent 12 years at the Newspaper Association of America covering a variety of topics before joining SIPA in 2009 and SIIA in 2013 as editorial director…