Backwards Planning Model from the U.S. Army
Try the US Army's Backward Planning process when you know your big goal, but do not know where to start to get to your desired end-state.
“’Would you tell me, please, which way I ought to go from here?’ asked Alice.
‘That depends a good deal on where you want to get to’, said the Cheshire Cat.
‘I don’t much care where -‘, said Alice.
’Then it doesn’t matter which way you go!’, said the Cat.”
― The Cheshire Cat, Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland
Success in life comes from achieving many small goals successively, that will lead to a higher objective, therefore it is important to choose your small and large goals wisely to focus your effort and make progress that sustains your motivation. Using Backwards Planning can help prioritize the most important or essential tasks to spend your time and energy on.
When explaining to my coaching clients about how to choose their important goals, and more importantly, how to determine which of the many and varied smaller goals they should focus on that need to be accomplished to achieve a bigger goal, I often present the Backwards Planning model I learned as an Officer in the U.S. Army. My clients asked for more detailed information on the Backwards Planning, or Reverse Planning model and I was surprised to find there was not much information available that explained the process in terms of personal or organizational goal planning. I found several short references from former Army veterans exclaiming the Backwards Planning process was the greatest thing they ever learned from their Army experience, but they did not provide detail on how the process works, or how to apply it in daily life. Therefore, I thought it would be helpful to explain the process as I understood it, and how it can apply to personal or organizational planning.Stephen Covey addresses the concept of Backwards Planning in his famous book, ‘The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People’, as Habit #2 – Beginning with the End in Mind. Covey states, “To begin with the end in mind means to start with a clear understanding of your destination. It means to know where you’re going so that you better understand where you are now so that the steps you take are always in the right direction.” The U.S. Army describes the process in FM 3-21.10 Troop Leading Procedures as, “Reverse planning involves starting with the operation’s end-state and working backward in time. Leaders begin by identifying the last step, the next-to-last step, and so on. They continue until they reach the step that begins the operation. It answers the question — Where do we eventually want to be?” The basic model is to first envision a future outcome or desired end-state, or long-term goal. Next you think about what steps need to occur for that desired end-state to become a reality. What is unique in Reverse Planning is that you determine what intermediate or sub-goal needs to occur immediately preceding completion of the big goal. Then the step required before that, and the ones before that. This provides a time frame of what must occur for each next step to be possible. Contrasting with Backwards Planning, FM 5-0 Army Planning describes Forward Planning as “…starting with the present condition and laying potential decisions and actions forward in time, identifying the next feasible step, the next step after that, and so on.” Forward planning helps determine what is feasible in the short-term. In any planning or goal setting process, you will come up with multiple sub-goals or tasks that must be accomplished along the way to reaching for the big desired end-state, this can become overwhelming and lead to distraction of focus or even immobilization, so prioritization is crucial to success. All accomplishments in life take applied effort and application over time. Every goal will take your hard work and time, so it is vital to choose your goals wisely. First of all, the best long-term goals should be analyzed in the light of why do you really want this? The Sherpa Coaching model calls this the “Why It Matters?” which is the principle you will be more motivated and persistent in moving towards your goals when you truly understand why you want to accomplish that particular desired end-state. What is the true root need or want that accomplishing this goal will satisfy for you? The more a goal is based on your inner values, the stronger the motivation and perseverance you will invest in achieving them. For example, seeking a master’s degree in an area you find fascinating and interesting is much more motivating than pursuing a degree because you might generically make more money. When the going gets tough, it makes a significant difference to really have clear motivations to keep persevering and investing the time and effort. If your “Why It Matters?” is unclear or externally motivated, it may be better to seek an alternative goal. Backwards Planning and simple analysis will then illuminate many steps that are required to achieve the desired end-state. Everyone has limited time and energy in life, so the next steps in the planning process are to determine which of the myriad sub-goals to put your focus on. Starting with the end-state goal, what has to take place for that goal to occur? If you start at D, then C must occur, or D will not happen. Then to accomplish C, B must occur, and so forth back to A. Each sub-goal requires actions, materials, financing, knowledge, scheduling, or relationships with other people. Now you know which are the essential tasks and requirements that must take place to reach your desired end-state and can eliminate sub-goals that are not necessarily required.
Using the Pareto Principle or 80/20 rule can help prioritize the essential goals even more precisely. This model suggests that approximately 80% of productive results can be attributed to 20% of one’s efforts, or that choosing the most important 20% of your sub-goals will have the greatest result. Thus, you can eliminate, ignore, or delegate the least productive sub-tasks. Or, alternatively focusing 80% of your available time and effort on the most important 20% of your sub-tasks will move you faster and more effectively to your desired end-state.Now you have chosen a few important long-term goals based upon your personal “Why It Matters”, you then analyzed the sub-goals to be accomplished and choose those which to prioritize your time and effort on. Backwards planning also provides a time frame for when you must accomplish critical sub-goals, and allows you to consider and plan for required resources, financing, support, or materials at the right time. Backwards planning also offers checkpoints to ascertain if you are making progress, or are on schedule, or to consider changing your plans if your goals change over time. Combining Backwards Planning for an aiming point, and Forward Planning to determine what short-term goals to focus on next can be the most effective process. And finally, don’t forget to prioritize taking care of your most important asset – yourself! Planning for health, fitness, supportive relationships, and mental well-being should be the priority goals before any other objectives. Self-care generates the energy and creativeness to accomplish any other goals in life!
Roger Sherrin is an Executive and Global Professional Coach, ACC, BCC, CSC, Coach A Global Coach, and E.I. Coach, and U.S. Army Major, retired.