Beginning at the End – A Guide to Backwards Planning

People often say, “it’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey.” Sounds lovely, right? But to a project or marketing manager, everything is about the destination. Knowing the end game of a project is what determines everything else – the project plan, pacing, resources, literally everything. We must first know where we are going in order to develop a roadmap that will take us there.

Backwards planning, or work-back project planning, is as it sounds, a method of project planning that allows you to build your roadmap from the end deliverable back to the project start, including the end and start dates of each project phase. While backwards planning is often used in marketing, the methodology also holds water in many other industries such as tech, architectural development, education, and even wedding planning. It is a method of planning that comes naturally to some but may seem difficult for others to grasp if they prefer a more linear approach. So, let’s break it down.

Begin at the End

Establish your destination by defining your deliverable(s) in as much detail as possible and assigning your project completion date. Your project completion date could be a go-live date, product launch, live event, or when you must have final files in your client’s hand. Confirm your assumptions on the deliverable and completion date with all project stakeholders to ensure there is alignment and that expectations are realistic and reasonable for both you and the stakeholders. Sounds crazy to do this first, but it’s critical to make sure that you have a clear picture in mind of what your end destination is before you can build your roadmap.

Do a Brain Dump

Do a “brain dump” of all the project phases you need to complete to achieve your end deliverable. At this stage, it’s ok to keep it high level, or at the milestone level. Often, on large projects, it’s not easy to work backwards methodically. To make this process less intimidating, you may find it easier to write down everything you can think of (even have others contribute if needed) that will be needed to achieve the deliverable. Don’t be concerned with order of milestones or dates at this point, just get it all out of your head and onto paper.

Organize & Prioritize

Once you have your project milestone phases outlined, organize them by the order they must be achieved. Ask yourself if any of them can take place simultaneously or if they must be consecutive. Then outline the smaller tasks that make up each milestone of your project. Organize these tasks by chronological order, and again ask yourself what can be done simultaneously versus what must be consecutive. This is a good time to identify any dependencies between milestones or tasks. Make note of any tasks that may need to be prioritized based on resource bandwidth or a stakeholder’s availability. You may need to expedite these or shift them around to make sense for your specific project circumstances.

Set Realistic Dates

Next, identify how many days you or your team needs to complete each of the smaller tasks that make up each project phase or milestone. It’s also good to identify any gaps or lag times between tasks, this includes review periods or estimates on how long items will be with the project stakeholders awaiting feedback. When determining time estimates for all tasks, be realistic rather than optimistic. Being too optimistic can backfire if you are unable to deliver within the estimated time frame leaving others in a tough position.

Finally, working backwards, you can begin placing dates to milestones and tasks. It will become clear as you get to the first few tasks if the work can fit within your completion date deadline. If it can, you’re ready for the final planning step. If not, you will now know that your completion date is not realistic and will need to check with the project stakeholders to see if there is any flexibility. If it’s not, what parts of the project plan you are willing to forgo in order to hit the completion date. Remember to be transparent if skipping tasks will impact the quality of the end deliverable.

Crosscheck Complete

Having someone evaluate, inspect, or review your work on a project plan is never a bad thing, in fact, it’s helpful and you’ll be glad you did. Better to know before it’s too late if you’ve overlooked something. This is also the time to double check if the resources you’ve identified are still available. Just like in flight, completing a crosscheck will give you confidence before your project takes off.

Most projects fail due to a lack of planning. Backwards planning is a great method to follow when sometimes projects just seem so large and overwhelming that you don’t even know where to begin. Throughout the project, this method will help you identify if you are on-track or if you need to reset expectations as you achieve or miss milestone dates or tasks. While backwards planning does equate to a more elaborate planning process, once a project is underway, you will avoid the frustrations and confusion of the day-to-day because you have a clear roadmap to follow and (almost) always know what’s around the bend.

What’s your preferred method of project planning? What has your team had success with? If you are still trying to find a method that works for you, consider beginning at the end.


About the Author

Kimberly Hemesath

Kimberly is a Project Manager at DemandLab. She brings nearly a decade of account and project management expertise, five of which were earned in a high-volume agency environment where she had an opportunity to work with national brands.

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