How to Move Your Career Forward by Thinking Backwards

think outside the box

When we think of growth, we think of forward movement. We think “get bigger,” “push ahead,” or “move up.”

But what if the best way to move a career forward is to think backwards?

It’s called backwards design, and it’s a learning theory used in education and training.  Instructors determine learning outcomes first before choosing instructional methods.  In other words, they start at the end and plan backwards. For example, what should students be able to do or demonstrate at the end of a unit? Then, to get there, what do they need to learn right before that end, then before that, etc.?

The theory of backwards design (also called backwards planning) works, according to research, because the end goal is always in sight.

Backwards Planning in Business

In business, we set goals and desired outcomes—sales numbers to hit, marketing objectives to meet, profit margins to widen, and so forth.  But once these goals are established, do we “think backwards” to achieve them?

Research from Korea University Business School shows that how a path is planned has “a major impact on the outcome” (Jory MacKay, Inc).  In a study, participants were asked to create a study plan either in chronological or reverse order.  Those who planned backwards performed better. “The researchers attributed these results to the fact that when we’re told to start at our goal, it makes it feel more attainable and closer to coming true,” says MacKay.

In a Psychological Science article, researchers Park, Lu, and Hedgcock concluded that “Thinking in reverse order makes people less likely to perceive the present reality as an impediment.” They noted that backwards planning is particularly helpful for complex problems with much uncertainty (John Ballard, Ph.D.).

Backwards design allows for a direct sightline to a goal and a clear understanding of the steps it takes to get there. It’s kind of like filling in the blanks instead of going in many directions.

How to Start at the Last Step

Where do you want to be this time next year? For some of us, we want a certain job title, a position with flexibility, or a bump in salary. A business may want to hit a sales goal. Whatever the goal, think about the step prior to achieving it.

For example, if you have a sales goal to sell a certain amount of software to other companies, how many licenses need to be sold to which companies to get there? Then, think backwards again—why would these companies ultimately choose you and your product over something else? Focus on the decision-making step.  And then backwards again—what got them to that decision?

Brainstorming sessions can help businesses plan with the end goal in mind. Think of it as a hiker planning a route– where to sleep, what to avoid, etc.  Backwards design helps you see alternate routes ahead of time and plan for the route that best meets your needs. Planning far in advance can help reduce unnecessary tangents.

Tips for Backward Goal Setting

Backwards planning means thinking in a new way.  “When you read a backward plan, it doesn’t look much different than a traditional forward plan,” says MindTools.  “However, creating a backward plan is very different.  You need to force yourself to think from a completely new perspective, to help you see things that you might miss if you use the traditional, forward-thinking chronological process.”

Use these four steps to get started:

  • Define realistic, definable goals- this important step means that goals cannot be too vague or too out of reach
  • Brainstorm a backwards path for success with the input of others- getting everyone on board is crucial to getting the sequencing right (post-it notes can help!)
  • Divide up tasks and roles for each step along the defined route- establish timelines, determine resources, etc.
  • Regularly check in and readjust- you may not get it right the first time, even with backwards planning

Backwards Planning in Staffing and Job Searching

If you are a hiring manager, what staffing needs do you anticipate at each step of the backwards plan?

If you are thinking backwards with personal career goals, imagine yourself getting hired for your dream role. What set you apart? What steps did it take to get into the role?

The experts at Artemis Consultants can help you move forward in 2022 by thinking backwards.  Let’s brainstorm with your end goal in mind.

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