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  • 💥 The Science Of Working Backward, Keeping The End In Mind, and Predicting Problems

💥 The Science Of Working Backward, Keeping The End In Mind, and Predicting Problems

Welcome to the Action Digest, the home of hacks and insights that outperform Grandma’s old sayings, guaranteed.

A sneak preview of the upcoming action:

  • 📚 America’s most prolific biographer teaches us why the first step of a successful project is to become obsessed with the end.

  • 🥼 We break down a technique from modern psychological studies for devising plans that are more likely work.

  • 🔮 We’ll learn how to spot failure-inducing problems before they happen with a controversial visualization exercise.

  • And more!!

P.s., you can check out editions 1-18 here in case you missed them, including insights such as the playbook that Coco Chanel used to rewrite the world of fashion and go from orphan to multi-millionaire, how Steve Jobs cultivated great creative taste, and the motivational memos that turned around a failing soup company.

Seriously, there are some gems you’ll appreciate in these earlier editions. ;-)

1. Everything changes when you start working backward

In 2004, Amazon was preparing to overhaul the digital side of its business. It was up to Bill Carr and his team to propose how to do it. But they had a problem. Jeff Bezos kept rejecting their proposals.

“We had several meetings with Jeff to present our ideas,” Bill writes, and “at each one, he would listen carefully to what we had to say. He would ask probing questions and study the financials. But he never seemed satisfied or convinced.” 

After a few unsuccessful meetings, Jeff asked for mockups instead of PowerPoint slides. But “we didn’t have any mock-ups,” Bill admitted, “we just wanted to sell Jeff on the opportunity, show him that these digital media businesses could be large, set a budget, and get the green light to start building the team. We would deal with the customer experience and other details once we got his go-ahead.” 

Reluctantly, the team returned a few weeks later with mockups. But again, Jeff peppered them with questions and seemed dissatisfied. “We answered as we had before. We hadn’t figured out all that stuff! We just needed his basic approval so we could hire the team, start negotiating deals with media companies, and get something launched.” 

Finally, a new approach was suggested. No more slides, mockups, projections, or spreadsheets were allowed. Instead, for each product proposal, the team was to start by imagining that they were releasing the product imminently. Therefore, they had to write a press release as if they were explaining the new product to customers, the problem it solves, and how it solves it. In other words, they started at the end and worked backward from there.

The first product born from this new approach was the Kindle. “When we wrote a Kindle press release and started working backwards, everything changed,” Bill recalls, “we focused instead on what would be great for customers. An excellent screen for a great reading experience. An ordering process that would make buying and downloading books easy. A huge selection of titles. Low prices. We would never have had the breakthroughs necessary to achieve that customer experience were it not for the press release process.”

Amazon’s new backward methodology revealed the problem with their original approach. “We had focused on the technology challenges, business constraints, sales and financial projections, and marketing opportunities. We were working forward.” 

Through trial and error, the team had discovered the power of backward planning—a notion increasingly backed by scientific research…

2. Backward planning improves the clarity of plan construction

In 2017, researchers conducted five experiments where they pitted forward planning against backward planning. 

In each experiment, half of the participants were asked to come up with a plan to achieve a real goal using “forward planning,” which was defined as “planning the steps required to reach a goal in chronological order.” 

“For example, a student can prepare for an exam in chronological order by first considering the action to perform in the nearest future (e.g. reading the first chapter) and then working his or her way up to the last action to perform immediately before the exam (e.g. final review of notes).” 

The other half of the participants were asked to use “backward planning” to map out the steps required to achieve their goals, “starting with the step furthest in time from the present and ending with the step closest in time. Accordingly, the student would first consider the last action to perform right before the exam and work his or her way back to the activities that are temporally closer to the present.” 

The results revealed that, “compared with forward planning, backward planning not only led to greater motivation, higher goal expectancy, and less time pressure, but also resulted in better goal-relevant performance.” 

But the researchers didn’t stop there. They were also able to explain why this difference occurs.

When you plan forward, you must ask yourself at each step: what should come next? This means planning forward is an exercise in prediction. When you plan backward, however, you ask: what must have happened? So planning backward is an exercise in deduction. Therefore, a backward perspective “constrains the number of sequences that come to mind, which improves the clarity of plan construction.” 

When it comes to complex projects and goals, backward planning facilitates greater clarity. And a clearer plan is both more motivating and more successful.

3. Obsess over the end—then keep it in mind

Robert Caro is often regarded as America’s greatest biographer, known for dedicating up to a decade on a single book. As Caro studies a person, he travels across the country to see relevant locations with his own eyes, scrutinizes thousands of documents, and conducts “endless” interviews. When the time comes to distill his extensive research into a polished masterpiece, Caro’s secret lies in keeping his goal constantly in view, quite literally.

He starts every project by defining what outcome he’s trying to achieve: “I can’t start writing a book until I’ve thought it through and can see it whole in my mind,” Caro explains, “so before I start writing, I boil the book down to three paragraphs, or two or one—that’s when it comes into view.” 

But defining the desired outcome of the book with these paragraphs is no easy task. 

“That process might take weeks,” Caro reveals, and it “entails writing those paragraphs over maybe… I can’t even tell you how many times, over and over and over. The whole time, I’m saying to myself, ‘No, that’s not exactly what you’re trying to do in this book.’ If you saw me during this process, in the first place you’d see a guy in a very bad mood. It’s very frustrating. I can’t actually say anything nice about this part of the work. It’s a terrible time for me. I sometimes think, ‘You’re never going to get it. There’s just so much stuff to put in this book. You’re never going to have a unified book with a drive from beginning to end, a single narrative, a single driving theme from beginning to end. There’s just too much stuff.’” 

But once Caro has his paragraphs, they serve as a compass that keeps him on track for the remainder of the project. “Getting that boiled-down paragraph or two is terribly hard, but I have to tell you that my experience is that if you get it, the whole next seven years is easier. When you have it, it’s so comforting, because you’re typing away, and you can look over there and say,” “Is this fitting in with those three paragraphs? How is it fitting in? What you just wrote is good, but it’s not fitting in. So you have to throw it away or find a way to make it fit in. So it’s very comforting to have that.” 

Clearly defining the end state of our projects is tough and requires meticulous thought and revision. But as the foundation upon which all of our effort will be built, it's essential to get right. Without the correct North star, we will either be disappointed by our destination or wander too far from where we hoped to arrive.

4. A system for keeping track of what you need to do next

No matter which direction you decide to plan in, you will inevitably need a system for keeping track of what you need to do next. 

For Robert Caro, this means sticking a to-do list up on the wall… 

New-York Historical Society

The truth is that it doesn’t matter how you choose to keep track of your action steps. 

It only matters that you do actually keep track of them. 

The research that informed the design behind the Action Method product line is based on the same premise - working with a bias towards action is the ultimate competitive advantage among the world’s most prolific creators.

Each page has a dedicated space for action steps—the action column.

The magic of working with the column is twofold: 

  1. It makes you much more likely to write down your action steps in the first place

  2. It gives you one single place to store and track them

This leads to much greater clarity and, as we learned from today’s study, clarity is what helps us achieve our goals.

You can pick up or replenish your supply here

“Gone are the days where I walk out of a meeting with long notes and no clear understanding what I need to do. These notebooks keep me on track.”

Tina Roth Eisenberg, founder and designer

5. Imagining failure is a great way to avoid it

Imagine knowing your project has failed before it even begins. Well, that’s the basis of Gary Klein’s “pre-mortem” method, a technique that people pay Gary top dollar to help them implement. 

If you were to meet Gary for a strategy session, he would likely have his crystal ball with him, and “What I'm seeing in the crystal ball,” Gary would tell you, “is this project failed.” “The course of action that we picked didn't work out at all. It was a major disaster. The crystal ball isn't showing us why. It just shows us that this failed. Now, everybody around the table, take two minutes and write down all the reasons you can think of for why this plan failed starting now.”

It turns out that imagining failure is a great way to avoid it. When Gary’s clients imagine that they’ve failed in advance, and then work backward to explain why, it helps them spot genuinely lethal problems before they happen. Once we become aware of these previously invisible problems, we can then implement measures to reduce their likelihood, which improves the odds of our project succeeding. 

The technique is so effective that it predicted one of the world’s worst nuclear accidents, “You know, it's interesting,” Gary recalls, “When I started work on my book on red teaming, one of the people that I met was a nuclear inspector from Switzerland who had a company. He went around the world inspecting nuclear facilities and basically doing pre-mortems on them, you know, figuring out if there's a catastrophic failure at this plant, what is going to lead to it? And he had done one for Fukushima many years before the earthquake and tsunami. And I believe that he came up with 12 potential points of failure at Fukushima that could lead to a catastrophic nuclear accident occurring. And several of them involved an earthquake and tsunami. And as a result of this, he made 12 recommendations about things that they could change at Fukushima to ensure that a catastrophic failure didn't occur. They made 11 of the 12 changes. The 12th change was moving the location of the backup generators to a higher level above sea level to make sure they weren't inundated by a tsunami. And that's exactly what happened and why they had a meltdown.”

“And so tools like pre-mortem, in my mind,” Gary concludes, “are designed to help more people have these epiphanies beforehand so that they can at least not even necessarily change their plan, but at least be aware that this is something we should guard against, we should watch for as we're moving forward, and we should have a plan on how we're going to change our course if we encounter this.”

6. Always work backward from what you’re…

Robert Caro has painstaking clarity on what he’s trying to achieve with a project. 

But why stop there?

🔐 This insight, that reveals a bonus insight from Robert Caro’s creative process, is for premium subscribers (yep, this weekly digest is reader supported). For the price of one fancy coffee per month our research team will agonize over the lessons learned from world class creative leaders and teams who make ideas happen, and send their tightly summarized conclusions directly to your inbox on a weekly basis. What a proposition, huh?!

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We’ll leave you with this…

“We innovate by starting with the customer and working backward. That becomes the touchstone for how we invent.” 

Jeff Bezos

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