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Planning Backwards


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We often hear people in business saying that the beauty of sport is that its so simple. Now I could argue with that but for now I don’t have the energy.  I hope this article will demonstrate that simple or not sport gives us a great opportunity to draw analogy to learn from and apply to our own situations.

I have been lucky enough to be a part of successful and not so successful projects.  If there is one thing I have learned its that planning is essential for successful performance. The saying goes ‘prior preparation and planning prevents piss poor performance’.  However, what I have also learned is that planning for success requires different and sometimes adaptive strategies depending on the type of problem you are facing. For example planning out the logistics a competitive field hockey season or cycling stage race requires a different approach than planning to win a field hockey match or a stage of the Tour deFrance.

In order to understand how they are different we have to take a quick dive into complexity theory (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Complexity_theory_and_organizations). Complexity theory states that the Universe involves a combination of Ordered, Complex and Chaotic systems which require different decision models.

For the purpose of this handbook our focus will be on improving our understanding Ordered and Complex systems.

Planning out an ordered project. In an Ordered system there is a high degree of certainty, meaning ‘fairly’ predictable outcomes to set of actions. Using the field hockey example mentioned above planning a team’s hockey season is what we would consider to be a fairly ordered system.  In reality this means that once we have a clearly defined ‘End Win’, such as qualifying for the World Championships, we can identify clear priorities, checkpoints and a sequence of events that will ultimately allow us to achieve the ‘win’ then plan it backwards.

Of course this type of planning may range from simple to complicated tasks meaning it requires a greater degree of experience along the continuum. For example, booking a team hotel is a reasonably simple task that requires minimal expertise but organising the teams foreign country Visa’s and tournament entries involves a greater level of complication and therefore requires a greater level of experience in order to plan out.

At Track Record we find it useful to classify planning an ordered system as sprints (short term – few steps to take) or marathons (long term – many steps to take) and we find a reverse planning method to be the most useful.  This method helps us create the urgency required so we can clearly work within reality and not rely on hope as we firmly believe in creating an environment that makes things happen based on assessing options and taking control of what we can control.

Planning out a complex project – In a complex system there is a greater degree of uncertainty and there it requires a greater degree of flexibility e.g. a field hockey match.  These can also be known as complex adaptive systems meaning that acting in space causes the space to change, creating a situation where no one has ever planned the exact same situation before causing direct experience to be less useful.  In this situation we can only experiment with probability.

So, using the hockey example above playing a match falls into this system. As a goalie I might know my ‘end win’ to stop the ball coming in the goal when struck by the opposition forward and then pass it off to my teams advantage.   Every time I do this in a match however I will be given a unique set of circumstances that no one has ever faced before.  These might be from player positions, weather conditions, match score and position on the league table.

This means that every time I act in the system it changes the system so we should not ever define an ‘exact’ end state as that may actually limit our options and hence a successful outcome.

When planning in a complex system we suggest being aware of an ‘end win’ eg scoring more goals than the opposition however it would be foolish to try and define the exact score becomes it is much less predictable how we will get there.  When planning in a complex system we have to be much more aware of our starting point or where we are now following which decision making becomes much more purpose driven and requires an experiment every time you act. The consequences of which are that we need to be aware that we may end up at a different destination than we were aiming for. Moreover, failures such as a stray pass to the opposition or missed tackle is an inevitable part of the learning process.

Given this, in a complex system emergent practice is important to understand.  Meaning that learning and decision making based on a criteria or a set of principles such as values and behaviours should act as much as your guide as previous experience. Furthermore, as failures are inherent and we may end up at a different destination or taking a different path than we originally set out for we must allow more time for our projects to emerge and play out before assessing their success e.g. drawing a match conclusion based on a half time score will not always be a successful sports betting strategy.

At Track Record we find it useful that when planning out complex projects to classify them as either expeditions (short to medium term – clear ‘end win’ without clearly knowing the route or timeframe of getting there – low risk, lower reward – but pack plenty of supplies for extra nights out in the cold) or moon shot (high ambition & clear purpose – high risk, high reward – fail fast, learn fast to minimise sunk costs).

Finally and in summary, although we can’t precisely predict the exact future ‘end win’ or path to it in a complex system we should not use this uncertainty as an excuse.  In all cases there is no excuse for poor preparation by not doing your research to account for knowns and unknowns, being aware of the fears and risks, opting for clear decision making and a regular review process based on appropriate evidence and value based criteria. This way we can account and be best prepared for favourable and unfavourable conditions increasing the probability of successful performance.

*Note. Usually when people get involved a system becomes complex. One primary reason being that we all carry our own unique set of cognitive bias into our decision making eg sunk costs, knowledge bias, confirmation bias, Ikea effect, framing/anchoring, loss aversion etc (see thinking fast and slow). “Aim for the stars and land on the moon.”

References – How to organise a Children’s Party by Dave Snowden – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Miwb92eZaJg Thinking Fast and Thinking Slow by Daniel Kahneman

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