Working backwards

A screenshot of a video of Donna with a grey cat in the background.

A video blog about starting at the end and planning (or writing) towards the beginning.


(this isn't the video transcript, it's the script I worked from, so might be slightly different, but better!)

Today’s blog post is all about planning, and specifically about working backwards. And I decided to do it as a video as I need to do some hand waving and it’s too hard to do that in writing.

When we plan something we usually think about it in a forwards direction – what do we do first, what do we do next, what do we do then.

It’s a very natural way to work and I imagine it’s the way we’re wired to think.

But I find many problems with this approach.

Firstly, if you don’t know where you’re heading, it’s hard to know where to start to get there.

It’s easy to follow a forward path, make a great plan and later on find it didn’t lead you where you needed to go.

And for me, I get stuck staring at a blank page, or staring at my thoughts and trying to figure out how to get started.

I have a few examples I’ve worked on recently. I’ll tell you about them, then about working backwards, then come back and tell you how this process addressed them.

I’m renovating and this is my future sewing studio. It’s blue and it’s broken and it has really high ceilings.I keep walking out here and wondering how to get started. Do I do the ceiling first and then move downward. Do I pull up the floor tiles as they’re achievable. Do I take the shelving down. And what do I do with the window bays?

My second is a work example. I wanted to write about how we do design at MakerX. I’d been procrastinating for ages. I’d think about it and just didn’t know where to start.

My last is that I recently needed to write a workshop about presenting design work. Normally I would start with an intro, write some content, add an activity, write some more content, do another activity and so on. That sounds sensible, doesn’t it?

So lets come back to the idea of working backwards instead of forwards. Here as it sounds, we start at the outcome or last step and at each step say ‘so what needs to happen to get there’. For me this thinking is very inspired by the Getting Things Done approach where you ask ‘what’s the next action here and, crucially, can I do this next action or does something else need to be done first (which is the actual next action).

How does this work practically? You think of the end result and say ‘what needs to happen just before that thing’ and note that. Then you do it again. And so on and so on. I find for even small projects this creates a lot more detail than if I was working forwards, but it’s all really good detail and I miss less. And the other good thing about this approach is that you can’t miss your mark – after all, you started there.

Let’s look at how this worked for my 3 examples.

For the workshop, I started/ended with ‘what’s the last thing participants will do’.

  • They’ll do a presentation
  • How long
  • Oh, not sure how many people there will be. If I put them in groups they can present to the group. So a few minutes each, to the group not the whole room
  • What needs to happen to get them there
  • They need to prepare a presentation
  • Can they bring it
  • No – they’ll learn how in the workshop
  • Cool, so they need time to prepare it in the workshop and they need the principles
  • Oh, they need to bring an idea then.
  • Which means I need to tell them this ahead of time
  • Which means I need to write some instructions and give them lead time

Lucky I’m not writing the workshop a couple of days before like I sometimes have!

What about my blank page about how we design. Well, we have a really good set of principles at MakerX. So I started there. I took a principle and said ‘how would we do design to achieve that principle?’ One of them is ‘small, smart and speedy’. What does design look like to do that?

I went through all of our principles and ended up with 13 pages of notes. I typed them up, shuffled them around and ended up with 5 big points. It’s really good, it fits in with our other work and there’s no way I would have hit it by starting with a blank page and moving forward.

And my studio? Well this is actually a huge project. My blocker is that I don’t know what I want and want to prototype the space with movable fittings. I narrowed down to an outcome I can grasp, and that’s to get a clean slate to start with – a shell with basic structures and not breaking anything.

What does that need? Well the last step is to take up the floor tiles as working on concrete is dusty. Before that the skirtings need to go. But I don’t want to paint them, so they can happen before painting. Before the floor would be the walls, which means removing shelving and patching. I have everything ready for that, and can get that started. And before the walls is painting the ceiling, so I don’t drip on completed work. The ceilings are high, so I needed to figure out whether I could do it myself or get someone to. Which is why the actual first step of this project was to bring the ladder inside.

Next time you’re about to do some planning, or are staring at a blank page wondering where to start, start from the end and work back to the beginning. And let me know how it went!