Solve Your Business or Personal Problems by Starting with the End Game First and Working Your Way Backwards
In advertising we’re always exploring different problem-solving techniques for helping our teams, clients, and partners solve their brand challenges. In my industry, we spend the majority of our time focusing on strategy and research, which has naturally shifted us to logical thinking. We embrace consistency and forward linear process. Often times, when challenges and thinking hit a roadblock, we hear things like “let’s take a step back” or “let’s start over,” but really, maybe we should be saying, “let’s do this backwards.” Changing up the conventional process of problem solving can occasionally influence a fresh, unexpected and potentially stronger perspective.
Sometimes approaching problem solving from the end goal, with singular or multiple paths forward can lead to a different, and at times breakthrough, way of approaching your challenge. Scientists, mathematicians, lawyers and politicians often use this technique. Think about district attorneys and detectives. They need to start with the end result (the crime) and work their way backwards nearly every time to find the person who caused the crime and the motive for it. In advertising, I see this practice at work when we build strategic plans for our clients. Often times the central piece of the puzzle is the “big idea,” and everything else is built around telling the story to get us to that central guide for the brand.
Instead of starting with the problem, start with the solution or the end goal you want to achieve. What is the one thing that is going to signal success? Make sure it comes with absolute clarity. Work backwards through the logic of what is the current problem, what is causing the problem, how to change it, and how to create the action or behavior that will trigger success. I suggest mapping out a few logic flows for how this might work and swapping inputs until you find the process that best inspires your thinking.
To effectively use this method, and arguably any problem-solving method, it’s critical to clearly understand:
- Clarity of the end game. What is the definition of success for this activity?
- The real problem you are solving for. What is the deep, tangible problem that you need to solve?
- Defined steps to take. What steps get you from your end result back to your current situation?
One disconnect we often see when we encounter roadblocks is getting to the real problem we are trying to solve. At times, we discuss challenges like low awareness, brand perception, or low sales, but is something deeper driving these challenges? Does your audience truly understand the value your brand or product brings to their life? Do customers clearly understand your category? Do they think your brand is cool enough? Digging deep into your problem can bring more clarity to what you really need to fix or change, and it can also help provide more guidance in connecting the dots between your end goal and the problem.
Applying Backwards Thinking
This method can be applied to aspects of personal life, such as planning a vacation. What is your end goal? Is your ideal vacation experience staying in a castle in Europe? Is it escaping to a deserted island or going backpacking? Narrowing and working your way backwards through options of environments, methods of transportation, and price can help you get to your ideal solution quicker.
Let’s say a financial brand seeks to increase applications within your credit portfolio with millennials. This is a tricky challenge as millennials likely have a range of financial situations and may also be more conservative with how they are spending their money. Starting backwards might lead the company to seek out what triggers encourage credit card usage and what they spend their money on and then work toward solving for how to start the conversation with them.
A specific advantage I’ve seen with this method is simplification of a complex problem. Often times when we kick off a new project, we are conditioned to think broad and to generate a high volume of ideas from the get go, but it doesn’t always need to play out like that. Having too many choices can sometimes be paralyzing in complex problem solving. These are moments when starting from the end goal can help simplify the process by narrowing the directions of ideas.
Even as life continues to influence us to approach things one step forward at a time, consider inverting the process, and see how you can surprise yourself (and others) with a unique perspective that can guide your thinking.7