Why Can’t Everyone Think Backwards?

Person falling backwards

In the fifth of nine articles exploring things he has found surprising in business, Peter Massey explores ‘why can’t everyone think backwards?’ Plans that meet deadlines rather than creating sludge.

Golden Questions

Have you ever heard of golden questions? They’re the ones which reveal some surprise or jolt. And provide data which defines something commercially useful.

For example, “Who buys their pet a Christmas present?”

You, dear reader, are probably either saying “don’t be so daft” or answering the question.

People who don’t have pets won’t know the lengths that people who have them will go to.

Can You Think Backwards?

At work, in planning anything “Can you think backwards?” is one of those golden questions. Some of you will get it straight away, some of you will be wondering what it means.

‘Thinking backwards’ is the ability to imagine yourself forwards in time and space and work backwards as to how you got there. The steps you made and sequence you took them in. The resources you needed and why it worked.

This can be a massively useful tool in anything you are trying to achieve in your contact centre – from scaling up your teams to meet growing demand to introducing a new workforce management system, or even moving premises.

‘Thinking backwards’ is the ability to imagine yourself forwards in time and space and work backwards as to how you got there.

Can You Spot People Who Can and Cannot

Can you think backwards? More importantly, can you spot people who can and cannot? It’s vital to the way you communicate, set up work deadlines, trust in projects and programme delivery and build free space for people to work in.

If you give a project or deadline and too much space to someone who doesn’t think backwards, they are likely to fail and feel they weren’t supported.

If you over-manage someone who can think backwards, they are likely to feel squashed. So, it’s a vital motivation skill to recognize the difference.


Without asking the question, you can still discern the answer from the symptoms. Wading through treacle comes to mind.

Bad Example

For example, we once used a very large IT company as part of a launch. At the weekly review they would tell us where they were up to and what it had cost so far.

They couldn’t tell us when it would finish and what the ultimate cost would be. They literally said “we can tell you when we’ve finished”.

Needless to say, they were sacked. Maybe that was a deliberate policy and culture to increase fees. But we didn’t expect it to change. And we couldn’t build a business to a deadline with that unknown.

Symptoms at Work

Yet how often do you see this style of creeping disaster in projects and deliverables at your workplace?

Colleagues who update you with where they are, but cannot define the end point or whether they are on track to reach it in time or on budget.

Colleagues who always need more time, asking for it after the deadline.

Colleagues who ask for more people or money or skills well into a change or a project. These are the symptoms of not thinking backwards.

Example 1

When I worked in the property industry, we fitted out and relocated a company in record time, to St James Street in Mayfair. In the first meeting on day one the client said we need to be in by a set date.

So, the lead project manager thought about it and said in that case we need every design decision today, so no one leaves the room until the detail design decisions are done, right down to each desk position and its services.

Thinking backwards from the set date meant he knew exactly why a huge amount of work was urgent today.

Example 2

At one of our CCO Forum meetings, we were very lucky to have dinner at the House of Lords and be given a beautiful talk on building the 2012 Olympics by Tessa Jowell.

She explained how right at the outset, she took on the Treasury in a make-or-break meeting. They were to have no say on spending decisions or else the Olympic sites would never get built.

She took just one person to the stand-off meeting with acres of mandarins. Her classic question was “Have any of you built the required transport system, a small town and an Olympics before?”

Of course, there was silence. “Well, he has. And unless you get out of the decisions, he won’t be able to this time”.

A classic case of imagining the future and thinking backwards to what is crucial today.

Example 3

I once built a dealing room in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. We had seven months from inception, including building a mezzanine floor to provide the space.

The client was a bit surprised when three months in at the design cut-off date, I told them unless they decided which of the carpet colours they wanted, they wouldn’t have carpet at all.

They didn’t believe me. After all, putting a carpet in takes very little time. They had the dealing room up and running bang on time.

Without carpet. I knew what the knock-on consequences of one late decision would be on multiple contractors and coordination points. I’d seen it many times.

The most extreme being as an expert witness in a case where a client moving a floor-box design around had cost several million pounds.

That one delay to make that change caused many many delays in the completion of a major building, with major financial and contractual complications.

Coordinated Thinking

Building buildings takes immense coordination over a period of years. It can only work by thinking backwards, designing what’s to be done in sequence based on a thorough knowledge of how things work in practice.

To get that to work there have to be milestones or gateways which everyone reaches together, or else no one goes through.

Concept, outline design, feasibility (budget), detail design, approval, construction phases, completion, in life.

Changing things in the middle is like reopening a door behind you after you’ve closed it.


Don’t Reopen Closed Doors

Thinking backwards requires the ability to imagine the future state, to work backwards to create interim milestones and to understand the consequences of opening doors after you’ve closed them.

Can You Teach It?

A thumbnail image of Peter Massey
Peter Massey

Can you teach ’thinking backwards’? My own jury is out on that one. It’s very like “Can you teach someone to think like a customer?”

In my experience, someone’s upbringing has a deep effect, e.g. what did they have to plan or see planned in their school, educational and early working years?

Specific project management training really helps but it’s not a substitute for an innate ability to look upfront at a problem from all angles of time and place.

Key to Motivation and Delivery Success

Whether you think backwards or not, in my experience being able to identify who can and cannot is a key to success in motivating teams and delivering anything in business, not just buildings.

Written by: Peter Massey at Budd

If you liked this article from Peter, read these articles next:

Author: Peter Massey

Published On: 19th Oct 2022 - Last modified: 9th Nov 2023
Read more about - Call Centre Management, , ,

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