This is a repost from my monthly newsletter, sent out early this week.

I may have shared with you in the past that I believe in stretch goals, objectives that challenge you, your team or your organization to venture to the brink of what’s perceived to be doable. This concept appeals to great many people but the key question that I am asked again and again is this: “It’s fine to think big and set challenging goals, but how do you make sure you reach them?”

Whether you are setting your organization’s strategy or seeking breakthrough in a tactical matter or looking for a leap in self-development, there is one particular skill that you need to master. I call it the art of walking backwards. Here is what it’s all about.

We all make plans in work and personal life. Traditional planning works reasonably well for objectives that we are reasonably familiar and comfortable with. Take, for example, new product launch, which your organization may do all the time. A product manager knows what it takes and how long the lead time is, which enables her to put together a roadmap, a project plan. Prior experience comes in very handy in this case.

Try to do the same kind of planning for stretch goals and you will find that experience becomes baggage, too heavy to allow any progress and too precious to relinquish. A consultant I know was once facilitating an executive retreat for a large residential builder. Profitability was the hot topic on the agenda and as it was discussed, it transpired that it would typically take all of 120 days to build a house. The company’s management couldn’t shrink the construction time any further and was looking for a miracle.

“What would it take to build the house in just 10 days?” asked the consultant, which prompted the audience to question his lucidity. He continued: “Well, we already know that it is impossible, so don’t say it again. If it were possible, what would have to happen to enable that?”

What happened then is this. The company did not hit the 10 day goal, but they managed 20 days, which they hadn’t seen in their wildest dreams.

And so is the key: you have to learn to walk backwards:

  1. Set the goal (e.g. own 1/3 of the East Coast market, acquire 100 new customers by 2010, reduce product development cycles by 40% and so on)
  2. Walk backwards from the desired future state and determine what needs to be in place to enable your goal.
  3. Capture all critical issues that need to be addressed: facilities created, people hired, R&D, systems deployed, etc.
  4. When you reach the present state, you should have in front of you a list of future projects. Prioritize them and run as a program.
  5. Maintain the momentum.

 This is a very powerful technique that not only helps to get over that “Impossible!” or “It will never happen!” reaction but also challenges your people to find solutions to difficult problems. If, as many other executives, you are looking to spark the spirit of innovation within your organization, this is a great way to do that.

 Sometimes, walking backwards is a sure way to get ahead.