Life is all about Planning Forward while Looking Backward.

We plan for our careers, college, married life or not, vacations, and retirement, to name a few. After we execute each planned step, we begin looking backward to review progress, evaluate each decision and step (forward or backward), and plan any adjustments. Adjustments include but not limited to are change college major, divorce, move to a new apartment or city, and not doing adjustment.

If you are a project manager, you know a fundamental part of your role is around planning. We plan to achieve the project objectives, plan to stay within the operating parameters (example costs), or plan to avoid things that can cause failure (risk avoidance and mitigation). And as we know as project managers, Project Plans are living documents, or least these plans should be living documents. This is where looking backward comes into play. Each week or month you need to generate a status report. Gathering the information for this report, you will review status of the deliverables, Risk Register, Cost, Schedule, Assumptions, and Issues Log. This is where you are looking backward; what is the baseline the team is working against and what are the adjustments required as we continue to execute.

Planning Forward

As we become acquainted to the project objective and the operating environment, things like constraints and advantages.  For constraints, we must fit within, or devise ways to eliminate or enlarge the constraint. We will write more on that later.  For now, we can call it a bottleneck.  When it comes to advantages, we want to plan in a way that maximizes these benefits.

Think of the operating environment and constraints as a box. For many years now, ‘Think outside the box’ was the ‘go to’ phrase for looking for new ideas or pathways. We tend to think in terms of a box having movable walls. Resolutions for constraints may not be resolved quickly, and related to organization’s structure, resources, and processes. The same is true with the company operating environment. You might say, they can be and are changed all the time. In reality, they are just adjusted based on new learnings.

Planning (forward), particularly at the initiation of a project requires looking backward. Research similar previous projects. Dig into the Lesson Learned, Risk Register, Baseline Schedule versus Final Schedule of previous similar projects, and Interview Stakeholders for their memories of these past closed projects.

Why Look Back?

Unlike the song by the band Boston, Don't Look Back, a project manager should look back on their own volition.From experience, companies compel some after-action reports for project closure.  

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it."  Mostly quoted as: 'Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it." - George Santayana

Looking back is not necessarily something that happens at the end of the project, but routinely as we execute the project, we should explore performance comparing to the plan.In fact, this continuous exploration while doing the work is a significant element of Agile approaches.This need not be the case however.We will write more on that later as well. However, for companies that have a stage gate approach to project governance, each of these gates are formal opportunities to Look Backward, to review accomplishments, issues, and to Plan forward to the next phase.

Historical Record

If our company has processes with audits and captures of performance data, we can use the look backward during our look forward.Our range of past performances can provide us with some glimpse into what might happen. Companies that work from formalized processes, and record that data, can provide us some mathematical, objective representation of what has or could happen.For example, perhaps we have a formalized software release process, which consists of several steps.The data from this release informs us that this release process requires 5 days as the most frequently occurring (mathematical mode).

The mode is another form of determining the peak of the distribution. The mode is the value that has the most frequency of occurrence.  Consider the series 10.3, 10.5, 10.6, 10.7, 10.7, 10.9.  In this series, the mode is 10.7.

continuous learning

Thought Experiments

In a previous article, we discussed Thought Experiments. Thought Experiments are a great way to envision how the future might play out.  We learned about thought experiments from books about Albert Einstein. Thought experiments are hypothetical “what if” that will allow us to consider the events that can happen as well as exploring the actions we could take in response.  This is not just a planning function, but can also help in identifying risk, assessing and suitable responses.

During the looking backward you might uncover a repeated issue on previous projects.Conducting a Thought Experiment on your own or in a team meeting, an adjustment to a process or procedure might come to light. The current project could be the Test Case for this adjustment. This is a ‘best case’ outcome for Planning Forward while Looking Backward.


Planning Forward can be decoupled from Looking Backward, but we feel you do it at your own peril in project planning. Looking Backward at what has proceeded the current project to create advantage for success. Documenting actions you don’t want to do on the current project. Develop adjustments to alter the outcomes. On a side note, you might find as your career advances, that few companies routinely follow the information we’ve provided here. Having the mindset and potential successes this mindset may provide you, may set your career with the trajectory you desire.