Working Backwards: My secret weapon for goal setting

How far do you need to plan ahead for success? A month, a year, a decade? The answer varies, depending on the goal you want to achieve – is it business, politics, sport, your family’s future? The only absolutely correct answer is that some level of planning is going to help you reach your goal. It’s not enough to just show up and wing it.

That’s the voice of experience talking, of course, after around a decade or so at the top-level of domestic and international rugby. As a young bloke, I may have been guilty on a few occasions of backing myself to just muddle through, bounce off a few things, have a few setbacks, but be thereabouts at the end. No real plan. It sort-of worked for me, but when I look around now at some people I really admire, there’s definitely evidence that planning ahead can take your performance to another level, or your life in new directions.

Take the King, Lebron James. No other basketball player of this generation – or, possibly, any other – has been as thorough, as dedicated and self-sacrificial as ‘The King’. The guy lives for the game, and reputedly spends $US1.5 million a year just on personal body care, with a staff who make sure he’s cherry ripe to hit the court to earn the $US154 million that the Lakers are paying him over four years. But it’s more than just his physical conditioning. The guy is a freak, with unparalleled knowledge of all his opponents, a photographic memory of his games, and an unbelievable dedication to perfection. How far does Le Bron plan ahead? I’m not sure but I’m going to speculate he had it all mapped out while he was still in a pram.

Closer to home, I look at ‘Hoops’ – the captain of the Wallabies and the Waratahs, Michael Hooper. He is constantly thinking about ways to be better, bouncing ideas off senior players, keeping a list in his phone, chatting to the right people who own those areas. His drive to be better is the reason he is such an inspirational and effective leader.

For our 2019 Waratahs season, we had to be ready to start planning the day after we got knocked out of the 2018 semi-final. Yes, we made the semi; no, we were not happy with where we got knocked out, so how do we get better?

That involved a thorough debrief in the weeks afterwards. We actually had a club meeting prior to last year’s end-of-season awards, already trying to move forward. It involved the whole squad, but through the senior players, management and effectively canvassing the entire playing group, we feel like we got what we needed. That was led by our GM of Rugby and included some hard conversations centred around getting better. Then we started putting that into effect as a group.

Recently I have been speaking to someone about goals. Whether it be long- or short term, the advice is to have your goal coupled with a timeframe, and then work BACKWARDS.

So you say to yourself for example, ‘OK, we want to win the super rugby premiership in 2019. What steps or little goals do we need to accomplish to get there?’. Then you think, ‘to do that, you would need three things – the best defence in the comp, a playing style to dominate any sort of opposition’s style, and a solid set piece to enable to have the ball in play’. Then you take another step backwards off each of the three focus areas. ‘If we had the best defence in the comp, you would have less than two tries conceded per game, a defensive system that can be adapted to the opposition’s style, and individually the best technique.’ See how this works? So eventually, by working backwards, you gain a clear path of the small tasks you have to tick off to achieve your end goal.

The above focuses on rugby, which is obviously the easiest thing for me to relate to. In business or life, the principle is similar. In management, planning ahead is key. Looking forward to a business-imposed goal or KPI can be daunting. Try working backwards from that and having micro-steps along the way. Of course, it’s extremely important to include your staff (or teammates) in the direction you are setting, and to have it all mapped out visually for the team to get around.

This also works individually. A big-picture goal is daunting. But work backwards in small steps and see how easy it is to tick off one, then another, and then soon you’re well on your way!

My own goal and timeframe culminate with the World Cup final this year. After 2nd November I’ll do a thorough debrief, have some hard conversations, and then start working backwards from my next goal.