Back-Planning For Success

oming up with new dreams and passions can be fun, easy and inspiring – at least until you sit down and begin trying to sort out how to actually accomplish these wild goals. Suddenly, what seemed like such a clear and well-marked path takes on the aspect of an overgrown and thickly brambled wilderness of dangerous, unseen pitfalls and endlessly branching and unmarked trails. It’s enough to make you want to crawl back into your boring old life and forget the whole thing ever happened. But let’s try something a little different, first, and see if we can’t tame that overgrown jungle.

One of the best and most thorough ways to figure out how to do something new is called back-planning, or top-down planning. You begin by listing your finished goal at the top of the page, then working your way backward through each logical step that must come before the one above it. To do this, after every step you write down, yourself: “What had to happen immediately before this step in order to get to this step?” Be literal and very specific here – if your goal is to present at a conference, start with the standing ovation you receive, then list “give amazing speech,” below that, and “walk up and out onto the stage” before that and “get mic’ed up” before that, and so on. That way you discover all those niggling little details you might not think to think about otherwise (Is the stage accessible, if you have a disability? What sort of mic’ing system will they be using? If it’s a lapel mic, how does that affect your choice of clothing?)

As you can see, the more consistently precise and highly detailed your plan ends up, the better the chance you have of success when you put the plan into action. On the other hand, laying out the “big steps” can be a good way to get started, if that’s all you have – just make sure you’ve filled in the details and gaps before starting out. At some point, you may get to a step and realize, “I have no idea what had to happen to make this happen.” That’s when you know you’ll need to ask for help!

Here are two examples of backplanning, one bad and the other good, based on the goal of buying a house. Assume the plans were both written from the top down.

Bad Example

Goal: Buy house in suburbs

Step 5: Close on house (There may be many steps involved here – what are they?)

Step 4: Get inspection (How do you go about setting that up – and who can you ask if you don’t know?)

Step 3: Make choice (Based on what priorities and specifications?)

Step 2: View houses (Are they prioritized, is there a list of qualities, how did you even get that list?)

Step 1: Research neighborhoods (Based on what qualities, and how will you find time for that?)

Good Example

Goal: Buy house in suburbs

*Close on house

*Approve and make offer or disapprove and repeat with next house

*Review inspection and legal documents

*Hire real estate attorney to review property legal issues

*Get quotes from real estate attorneys (see Charlie – he works in a firm)

*Hire independent inspector

*Get quotes on inspections (see Bob and Jackie for referrals)

*Choose top 3 picks based on priorities list, Needs/Wants list, and price and rank them in order of preference

*Research recent appraisals, compare to prices

*View properties in person

*Give them priorities list and Wants/Needs list and set up appointments to view properties

*Contract real estate buyer’s broker

*Ascertain loan approval for estimated purchase price brackets

*Research loan options/providers and chose best (ask Mary to recommend someone)

*Budget for down payment and fees

*Estimate down payment, inspection, legal, brokerage and closing fees

*Estimate property prices in chosen neighborhoods

*Research neighborhoods based on lists and pick favorites

*Create priorities list for structures and settings

*Create a Needs/Wants list for new home

As you can see, the second list is much more organized and detailed, and sets out the process in a specific, sensible order. Of course, if you already know what house you want to buy, or already have your favorite neighborhood picked out, you would eliminate those steps, just as you would have to change some steps and probably add quite a few more if you required the property for business purposes, etc. The trick is to make sure you anticipate every step and sub-step involved, and account for it, so that there will be a clear progression from start to finish.

One important feature of this planning method is that it assumes success from the get-go. Rather than standing at the starting line gazing out in stark terror over the vast and unfamiliar territory between you and your dream, back-planning makes success merely a final step in the process and focuses your attention on the nuts-and-bolts of getting there. Once it becomes obvious that your previously hazy and distant dream is clearly achievable through a series of defined and reasonable steps, goals that once seemed out of reach are suddenly within your grasp.

The observant reader will note one other important difference between the two lists. The second list contains references to friends and acquaintances that might be able to help through their contacts, advice or services. Friends want to help friends. Having someone on your side who knows the terrain ahead can level the playing field where unhelpful (or even antagonistic) experts and complicated processes are involved. But also, realizing that you don’t have to know or do everything yourself in order to make your adventure a success can give help you achieve the calm sense of “I’ve got this,” you need to make it happen!

The Core Curriculum Of A Wonderful Life

An acquaintance of mine once lamented that she was utterly frustrated with her lack of progress toward her dreams, given her age. According to her outlook, if you hadn’t made it by then, you weren’t anywhere near as likely to do so afterwards. A very late bloomer indeed, she ranted, and going to seed before the blush was off the rose, to boot. Ouch. Fortunately, I didn’t believe a word of it and now she is happily off proving herself wrong in many ways – but I digress.
Far too many of us try too hard to jump right out of childhood and into long-term success before we’ve even figured out what we want. Sure, there are plenty of people doing it all around us – 20-something MBAs, 30-something CEOs and 40-something retirees. But what we fail to realize is that all the stuff we do until we move onto our dreams is hardly wasted effort, and all the stuff that these preternaturally speedy “reference points” skip over may well hurt them in the end.

Perhaps a little exercise in imagination will make clearer what I’m saying. If you had a child in college who was no less brilliant, no less studious and no less wise than any other, would you – in their first year at university – encourage them to take the advanced classes immediately, wringing your hands and bemoaning the fact that even though they’ve been attending a top-flight engineering school for 6 months already, they aren’t anywhere near being a top-flight engineer?
Of course not! It would be ridiculous. A sound course of study is to spend the first few years taking basic, core curriculum classes that provide the foundation for the advance studies yet to come, and to use that basic-ed time to ensure that they are on the right major track while they still have time to switch – because, after all, the core curriculum is a required part of all degrees and nearly all such classes are entirely transferable to any major course of study.
Well, the same thing is true in life, but too few of us see that clearly or well. Just as too many students trip and stumble through expensive and exhausting majors as if the wolves of hell were nipping at their heels, only to find themselves suddenly shaking hands with the Dean and holding a degree that they can’t even bring themselves to look at (not to mention the student loan bills that hit the mailbox the month after), lots of folks jump right into to what they’ve “always wanted to do” in life without even pausing to learn the basics skills necessary to live, love, survive and (most important) figure out for sure what they want to do in life. If you watch carefully, you’ll see many of those eager-beaver corporate prodigies, early adopters and always-on-the-ball whiz kids sporting increasingly haunting shadows in the backs of their eyes as they begin to realize that maybe they jumped into things a little too hastily, that “on the ball” isn’t exactly a stable place to be and that now they’re stuck with responsibilities, expectations and “sunk costs” that are just too weighty to get out from under with any grace or dignity.
Sometimes it’s good to be a late bloomer, seeds and all. After all, whatever we learn in the core curriculum of life will apply to nearly anything we choose to do with it later. Saving the advanced courses in life – the following of dreams, the searching for inner peace, the quest for the perfect mate – until after we learn how to balance our checkbook, love ourselves, think and act with honesty and integrity, and cook a decent meal – is not just a wise decision. It is absolutely, fundamentally the only way we stand a chance of getting it right when it counts.