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Outlier’s Path

Working Backwards & Forwards

Amazon popularized the method of starting from the goal and working backwards. Their process is about reverse engineering success by imagining the desired customer experience and working backwards to develop the product or service to meet customers’ wants and needs. Former Amazon executives Colin Bryar and Bill Carr even wrote a book titled, “Working Backwards.” In the book, a notable example was how Amazon started with the vision of customers carrying an entire library in their pocket and then worked backwards to create the Kindle and the ecosystem of ebooks.

The most ambitious founders set their sights on impossible missions and goals. These founders tell the most inspiring stories and try to work backwards from those narratives. Over the years, we have been beguiled by stories where the execution does not match the narrative. Working backwards only works if we start with impossible missions or goals and then deconstruct them into manageable steps back to where we are today. Most fail to do the second portion because connecting the future to today is hard. Without the connectivity of manageable steps, the team lacks alignment on the path forward.

If you cannot deconstruct all the steps working backwards, consider working forwards. In contrast, working forwards is about choosing a general direction, moving forward, iterating, and course-correcting quickly toward the mission or goal. As with an algebraic equation, whether you work backwards from the future or work forwards from today, these two methods should connect somewhere in the middle. When these two methods do not converge, something has gone awry.

As raving fans of working backwards, we should also remember to work forwards. These are different methods that should help us triangulate our path between today and the future. Inspiring stories, missions, and goals are imagined and worked backwards, but remember that companies, products, and services are built brick by brick and worked forwards.

Have a great week working forward!