Thinking Backwards– Sometimes Things Work Best in Reverse, Inverted, Opposite: Think– Outcome vs. Solution vs. Process…

The human mind, once stretched by a new idea, such as, thinking backwards.., will never regains its original dimensions ~Oliver Wendell Holmes

Thinking backwards is not original thinking… and so it’s said, in one form or another, but it’s very effective in business. Know exactly what you want the project, product, merger… to look like at the end. Know exactly what you want to achieve. According to Phil Wiley; start with the end in mind and work backwards. Draw a picture of it, maybe just in your mind but not the steps of how to get there, just the outcome. Only then, when you can picture the outcome, should you sit down and work out how to get there…

According to Mark Zimmer; most of us naturally think of time as an arrow that always points from past-to-future. Then, why do it… why think backwards? There are very good reasons and some of them are not only compelling but fundamentally necessary… For example, consider a safety inspector at a plane crash site trying to determine what could have caused the crash.

This is an investigation of a fatal series of events, which must be traced backwards until the root cause is found… But also, there are very practical and creative reasons for thinking backwards, and these are more than just exercises for the mind.

According to Jim Green; he calls it reverse plotting or inverted thinking to arrive at the outcome. Inverted thinking forces the brain to think outside the box and stimulates action by focusing your thoughts on the outcome before tackling the daunting task of providing a solution…

In the article The Power of Backward Thinking by Wray Herbert writes: Our mind shapes our emotions, thoughts, and language. For example, just consider a few common phrases: He is a  forward thinker. She is much ahead of her time. Like locomotion, the mind seems to value, naturally, what lies in front of us.

Psychologists think this powerful bias has deep evolutionary roots. Forward motion is what our ancient ancestors did when they felt safe, unthreatened. When they confronted something aversive or perilous, they would retreat. Over eons our evolving brain added layers of emotion to these deep-wired impulses that will approach and avoid.

A team of Dutch psychologists took this basic idea and ran with it. If avoidance and retreat have to do with danger, they wondered, is it possible that backward motion might actually recruit more brain power than forward motion? If threats are problems to be solved, shouldn’t actual and emotional retreat require greater attention, concentration? 

The psychologist, Severine Koch and colleagues at Radboud University Nijmegen, decided to explore this possibility and ran this simple experiment in their lab: They had volunteers walk just a few steps, either going; forward, backward, left, right. Then immediately took the Stroop test. This test has names of colors printed in different color inks; the word blue, for example, might be printed in blue– or it might be printed in red or yellow. The volunteers, then were asked to try very quickly to name the color of ink rather than read the word. It’s cognitively very difficult to quash the impulse to read, so fast and accurate responses are taken as an indicator of focus and concentration.

The results, reported in the journal Psychological Science, were intriguing. Those who had walked just a few steps backward were far more focused and attentive than were any of the others. Their physical retreat triggered increased mental control– presumably because of ancient link between threat and vigilance. Thus, confronted with a problem or difficulty, it’s more advisable to take a step back and think about the situation, literally.

In the article Thinking Backwards by Eugene Mason writes: Where do we start? You can almost visualize a set of stairs in front of you. What will it take to reach the top? Instead, first consider: Where do we finish? This is a more thought-provoking question up front, and it usually leads to major rethinking of process along the way.

Thinking backwards can lead you to the heart of the matter much earlier– while keeping focus on the ultimate goal throughout the undertaking. For example: In a military operation, mobilizing the logistics of the operation are considered from finish to start. That means getting all of the things; that are needed, where they are needed, and when they are needed. In essence, the battle is won or lost from the very beginning based on whether or not all people, equipment… are assembled in the right place at the right time.

Similarly, business projects… work in exactly the same manner: Success is based on whether or not all the elements are assembled in the right place at the right time… For that to occur, it’s necessary to consider the outcome first and work backwards from there. Defining success early on is hard, because it often forces us to rethink the initial concept.

The concept is great, but it doesn’t always fit in the overall plan, as well as thought: Thinking backwards means being flexible in planning and allowing for changes along the way as a concept matures and all the consequences become known. A flexible person keeps its eyes on the prize and will bend when necessary. Never let the concept become the finish line, it’s just a tool. I’ve seen many instances where the finish line is changed to meet the concept. It may be just relaxing a rule to allow certain people to participate or lessening expectations when things get tough.

Be careful not to mix flexibility with compromising of principle. In working backwards, it’s important to keep your focus on the road ahead (or rather, behind). Place markers; along finish-to-start to gauge progress, and as you work from start-to-finish. Working backwards is all about determining what assets you need to get the job done, from the outset, then making a plan to get those assets in place…

In the article Thinking Backward to Move Sales Forward by Gordon Bayliss writes: Sometimes you have to think backwards to move the sale forward. That is, asking good questions for the benefit of the customer, not the sales rep. For example; When will you order? Is a question that benefits the sales rep. To benefit the customer the question has to help the customer think through their planning, decision-making, and buying process.

To move the sale ahead, help the customer think backwards. When you ask a question for the customer’s benefit, it increases the customer’s trust, rapport improves, and getting at the truth (real answer) is easier. Making the sale and getting an agreement gets much easier, too. How can you ask a good question about when a decision will be made?

For example; the question: If I can save you some money will you buy today? Is hackneyed and over used. It also puts pressure on the customer. Besides, they’ve heard that question from every sales rep that walks through their door.  Okay, so you might think of asking your customer this– If you decide that you want this done, regardless who you pick– us or someone else, when would you like it done? Well, that’s better, but the question still benefits the sales rep and not the customer.

Sales people must look at things from different perspectives and act accordingly in order to move the sale forward; this means– start at the end.Instead of asking just one question, consider a series of questions starting with the end in mind and moving backwards. For example, ask the customer questions, such as:

  • What’s your dead-line to see the results from this solution?
  • What’s your dead-line to implement solution in order to see results?
  • What’s your buying process for getting this type of solution approved? What other approvals are needed?
  • What’s your time-line schedule; adding in all– preparations, proposals, reviews, updates, changes, decisions, approvals…?
  • What are all the things you need to make your decision an easy one?

This is an example of backwards thinking that will move the sale forward. Then, follow those fact-finding questions with a couple more, for example:

  • When I send you my proposal: What are all the things you want to see in it? Is it (the proposal) to convince or confirm?

In the article Thinking Backwards versus Moving Forward by Caroline van Kimmenade writesI’m not sure why, but I think most of us tend to think backwards. For example; when something happens in our lives, we tend to go back in time to figure out why the event took place. It’s classic cause-and-effect thinking. If something happens now, it must haven been caused by something else which happened before. Makes perfect sense. Yet, somehow, it never gives satisfying answers. In fact, it never really gives any answers.

On the other hand, you know those moments when you sit back and look at a disastrous event in your past and realize that because of that event– you ended up here. We tend to refer to it as ‘positive thinking’, or ‘making the most of things’. When you collect enough personal anecdotes of– ‘because of that I ended up here’– a new possibility takes shape:

A new mental map, so to say. Instead of routing all incidents direct into neurological spaces that contain– relevant past memories (e.g., lost in haywire of little tangled routes…) they pass through one simple station only. This station would have a sign saying: ‘hmm, I wonder what this is preparing me for’. There, the rational significance of the event itself will end… Thus, final destination reached, no further to go brain-wise… back-out into the real world where the action is…

Thinking backwards changes the focus from whether something might happen to how it might happen. Putting yourself into the future creates a different perspective… According to Michael Roberto; some people will often find, to their surprise, that they can construct a plausible scenario for an event they had previously thought unlikely. For example; as a mental exercise, start with the assumption that some event you did not expect did actually occurred. Then, put yourself into the future, looking back to explain how this could have happened…

Some of Gary Klein’s work on pre-mortem exercises is similar to thinking backwards; pre-mortem involves imagining what a post-mortem analysis would look like before you actually launch a new project… in the organization. Both thinking backwards and pre-mortem exercises helps to discover and evaluate different scenarios for how the future might unfold…

It’s often argued that decision-making involves two types of thought processes; backward and forward reasoning. That is, when making predictions about the future, one first looks backwards in time to understand the determinants of one’s present position.

In Roman mythology, the god Janus was porter of heaven and guardian deity of gates; it’s commonly represented as a head with two faces– one facing forwards and the other backwards…

Life can only be understood backwards; but must be lived forwards ~Soren Kierkegaard