Working Backward from Success OR Failure

There is an old strategy that’s persisted for an obvious reason – it works. You’ve heard it before, so I’m only going to review as I’ve also noticed a perversion of the same. The strategy is that you begin anything with the outcome in mind–its having been successful. If you have to complete a big project at work, get your kids to clean their room, close a deal, whatever the initiative, you begin by visualizing that successful outcome. You see it, feel it, associate into the thought–that is, instead of observing as a third party might, watching yourself over there achieving the outcome, you imagine you are experiencing it in real time, feeling those feelings, hearing, seeing the same things you would upon being successful.

Next, you “look back” along a timeline, back into the “past” (relative to that future event), all the way back to now, where you are about to begin that initiative. Along that way, you observe the various things you had to do, the actions you had to take, team members (if applicable) you had to engage, decisions you had to make and things you said to yourself to make it all happen.

Yes, if you know any NLP, you recognize this as a very brief course in “future pacing.” But that strategy has been around for years and many people have used it to achieve wonderful things.

Recently, however, I observed something I’d seen many times before, but not bothered to notice much. Maybe this is pertinent to Halloween tomorrow, as it is scary. It’s doing all the above, but with a failure in mind!

Seriously. But wait, why would anyone do that? Humans really like predictability. We like to know what to expect and it comforts us when our prediction turns out right. That desire, for many of us, is even stronger than the desire to get our way. If you’ve ever known a really negative person, you’ve seen this in action. When someone says something like, “If it wasn’t for bad luck, I’d have no luck at all,” they are embracing the idea that things “don’t work out” their way. That’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, of course. Not necessarily because invisible, mystical forces conspire to fulfill their prophecy, though to be fair, I don’t know enough about the supernatural to say such a thing isn’t happening. What I do know is that once we direct our unconscious minds, tell ourselves what’s going to happen, our minds work very efficiently with such intense focus. We follow that direction we just gave ourselves and look for opportunities to make it true. Affirmations can work well in the opposite direction for the same reason.

That said, we also have two ego-driven components at play. We don’t like to appear foolish, caught off-guard. So “anticipating” failure allows us the illusion of remaining aloof, above it all, even when we fail. The second thing is that we don’t like to be wrong. Stating an outcome in many ways commits us. We’ve “gone on record” with what’s coming. Unless you’re one of those people whose word means nothing, you can imagine how powerful this impulse can be. I don’t recommend future-pacing a negative outcome, anticipating (and creating) failure, though I saw an example recently with a client. I was asked to observe team planning meetings as a pre-IPO company tried to figure out why their sales efforts were failing.

The company had a goal of $15 million in sales one year, a goal for which they’d fallen very short. They figured they could make up for this the following year, on their march toward that initial public offering, by stating a goal for this year of $50 million. But by the end of the first quarter, they didn’t seem likely to hit that either. Not to downplay my skills, as I’m, ahem, pretty good at what I do! But sometimes the information is waving a red flag in your face and I don’t understand how anyone missed it before me.

In a Sales strategy meeting, the manager began with, “Look, let’s be real, here! Are we gonna sell $50 million? Ha! We didn’t get anywhere close to $15 million last year, so please! But if we do, like, $7 million in revenue, but $30 million in bookings, I think they’ll be happy. So, no need to stress over that! Let’s just do the stuff we know we already have and we’ll be okay.” I was stunned. I didn’t interrupt or redirect as that wasn’t my mission in that meeting. It took enough effort to get them to lower their guard and forget I was present. I certainly wasn’t going to claim the stage.

They proceeded to agree, comfort one another that their jobs were safe, and pat each other on the back for their brilliance. They then, from the goal of $7 million, they worked backward as we explored earlier, to the present moment. And that’s where it became even sadder. They negotiated with themselves to lower the amount to $5 million…because they figured they could wave some big numbers for “bookings”–precommitments to do business, with no upfront revenue or contract to assure it. They convinced one another that tentative commitments–which by definition can be canceled–would suffice as a replacement for actual money.

Quick survey–how well would that work in your own house or business?

They proceeded to follow the above process with that ugly goal of failure. They walked backward from falling short, explaining every step along the way, and even tried to renegotiate with themselves to further reduce the expectations.

I couldn’t help myself, and could have lost the contract by interfering. Still, I couldn’t help it. “Let me ask you, just a quick question–let’s say you double those expectations—” I looked around and the smiles and nods confirmed that their results could improve, though I’d said nothing regarding what they would have to do…so I didn’t upset anyone. “Let’s say you get, not $10 million, but $14 million—”

The attention was riveted on me. “And your bookings–wow, let’s say…$60 million!”

Everyone seemed very excited.

“So we’ve outdone ourselves! Think about that!” Pretty soon, they were congratulating themselves that, by agreeing with my idea, they could double expectations. When in fact they’d only doubled their own. Which they’d already negotiated down from what the company wanted. But there’s a trick to negotiation–if you’re doing it with someone else, you must negotiate with that other person! Merely deciding on your own to do less, comforting yourself that it will be good enough, doesn’t work.

I knew full well that the company stood by its own stated expectations. These psychological maneuvers wouldn’t mean anything to them. Nothing good, anyway.

Still, what that team was doing was negotiating with themselves, one small part of the relevant party, to adjust the expectations for the greater portion. But aside from the issues we’ve already exposed, this leaves a group of people responsible for producing results deciding to do less. To underperform. To picture that goal of that lesser achievement, which, regardless of how much they congratulated themselves, the rest of the company would call that a failure. But after this, the team pictured their actions, their decisions, every portion of the path toward that failure…which sent their neurology and unconscious minds the corresponding instructions. Our minds are very good at following such instructions. So with their decisions that day, if unchallenged, would have led them to achieve that failure with, well, great success.

“Do you mind if I ask a question?” I said. They seemed startled by my voice as though they’d forgotten anyone outside their little group was present.

“Sure, what?” The expressions appeared annoyed with me, but I’d never be able to tell this story if I didn’t make at least a small effort…

“What if you’re wrong?”

“About what?”

“What if you even double your own estimates–which would still fall short of what you’ve been assigned. I heard you, that they might settle for less…but what if?”

The anxiety returned and their nervous expressions verified–the question focused them not on a hypothetical, but the most likely consequence.

“Chris, that’s just being negative! You have to learn to think positively!”

Um, yeah… “Okay, that may be…but it seems wise to hedge your bets, right? What if you fall way short of expectations–which it seems you’re planning to do–and the company decides that a headcount reduction is the answer? Which of you goes?”

The team leader was the only one who didn’t appear nervous, though frankly he was the first who should have. “Alright, Mr. Know-it-all, if you’re so smart, what you you do, instead?”

This is one of those moments where keeping yours kills handy, but ego in check, is vital. “Well,” I said, “I’m not claiming to know your business better than you. But what I’d do, and would work in most companies, is to take the expectation, their numbers, not your own, make that the goal…and work backward from there, figuring out what we’d need to do in order to hit those figures. I know, easier said that done, right? Then again, you do know this business well, don’t you? If it could be done, we have all the right people in the room to figure out how, wouldn’t you say? Then again, I don’t know widget sales, just people and achievement. I’d be honest with myself, if I were you, though. When I’ve seen sales teams miss the target by that much, one of two things happens most often–the team is downsized as the market just can’t sustain the numbers and they don’t need as many people. Or the company decides the market is fine, the people doing the job can’t handle it. And it replaces them. Hey, you asked. But maybe I don’t know the widget business like you.”

Yes, they scrapped their plan. What happened is that they each began to think as individuals. When we have a group in which to hide, it’s easy to dodge responsbility. Social psychologists call it “diffusion of responsibility.” If a person shouts, “Help me!” and is surrounded by dozens of people, often no one will help, figuring, “Someone else will do it.” In this context, each individual saw their team lead “spinning” the bad news as a positive, and that none of them would be held accountable. Ironically, when I asked the team lead later, he said that he figured if my scenario happened, he could “show real initiative” by recommending the weakest team member be removed from the group. Possibly from the company.

Things changed when each person realized, “I might be blamed for this! So, I reject this ‘Planning to fail’ strategy!” The irony of course is that of all of them, the team leader was not only the most responsible, but would have been the first one held accountable. There would be no diffusion of responsibility for him. I understood this, so either his own judgment was impaired by the stress of the situation or he truly wasn’t smart enough to be leading anything.

Ironically, if everyone in that team cut through the diffusion of responsibility and recognized their own vulnerability, it could organically have worked. In a way. Think Machiavelli. If everyone began thinking solely for themselves, it might have worked out. For them. The company’s goals would have been ignored, sacrificed at the altar of individual interest. But at least each individual may have prospered at the expense of all others.
That’s not the tangent it might seem. With all I’ve shared, many would have made the observation I just did. I was pointing out that the Machiavellian approach works in very limited contexts and far better in “days of yore”. Once John Nash introduced the concept of Equilibrium, most of us evolved and realized the Machiavellian limitation. Now that could become a tangent!

To our original point, whatever outcome you have in in mind, focus on, and pursue, is likely what you’ll receive. It’s of course impacted by your level of commitment, as well as action and focus. But you get the point. Choose to fail, plan for it, focus on it, and surprise, you almost certainly will.

Or instead you could…

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