Why the Most Forward-Thinking Product Teams Work Backwards

Working backwards is all about starting with the desired end result in mind and then figuring out how to get there. Although everyone should already do this, there are plenty of times when this isn’t the case.

The key to working backwards is crystalizing where you want to end up. This means diving into the details of what the desired end result should be (more sales, happier customers, easier workflows, etc.), what the product must be capable of to achieve those goals, and what success would look like.

.. Starting with a press release

Made famous by Amazon, the working backwards strategy is a favorite among many product teams and thought leaders. A press release is usually the very last step in the product development and launch process. It tells the world: “Here I am, this is what I can do, and this is why you should care.”

To be effective, the author must step back from the technobabble trap and communicate in terms that resonate with the target customer.

“One important element of the press release is that it is written in so-called ‘Oprah-speak’. Or in other words, a way that is easy to understand,” says Nikki Gilliard of Econsultancy. “This essentially allows Amazon to cut through tech-jargon and any descriptions that would only confuse the customer, in order to deliver a mainstream product.”

.. Conducting a pre-mortem

post-mortem (or after-the-fact review of everything that went right or wrong during a project) is a common method for organizations to learn from previous mistakes and successes to perform even better the next time around. It’s a group affair where representatives from the entire organization chime in on what worked well and what went astray.

A pre-mortem essentially places that same group of stakeholders in a time machine and asks them to imagine everything that could happen before a single line of code is written or design is mocked up. The goal is anticipating and wargaming the situation, spotting all possible scenarios so the team has already anticipated potential stumbling blocks and land mines.

These sessions begin by brainstorming every possible calamity that could befall your product, from total market rejection to compromising user data to sluggish performance and inability to scale. It’s a chance to surface every fear and doubt lurking in people’s minds and determining which are more likely to actually occur.

“Once you’ve collectively established your highest risks, you can start thinking about ways to mitigate these risks. Realistically, you might not be able to stop all risks from happening,” says Marc Abraham of Settled. “In these scenarios, you can still figure out how to best reduce the impact of a risk happening and come up with a ‘plan B’.”