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Backcasting: How to create your future history

Backcasting: How to create your future history

“There are three basic things to remember relative to change: 1) face reality as it is, not as it was or as you wish it were, 2) change before you have to, and 3) control your own destiny, or someone else will.” —Jack Welch, former GE chief executive

“Turn and face the strange,” David Bowie advised some 35 years ago in his song “Changes.” He could well have been talking about the foodservice industry today.

We’re simultaneously seeing both brand fission, or the breaking up and selling off of foodservice brands to private investors, and brand fusion—IHOP and Applebee’s anyone?

Meanwhile, both the casual-dining and dinnerhouse segments are wrestling with unprecedented competitive pressure both vertically and horizontally. They’re feeling the squeeze from the so-called “polished-casual ” segment, which includes such concepts as Bonefish, and the fast-casual segment—Panera, Chipotle and others—as well as price-point-to-value assessment from their once-loyal customers.

Who would have predicted it 10 years ago? Who can predict what will happen 10 years from now? You can. Not by “forecasting” change, but rather by “backcasting” it.

The term backcasting may sound odd at first, especially since forecasting is such a common planning, leadership and even meteorological concept. Forecasting is the process of predicting the future by analyzing current trends. Backcasting envisions the future from the opposite direction. You define and detail a future-perfect vision of your company and then work backwards to the present, asking yourself, “What did we do to get us there?”

Backcasting is a process for people who hate to predict. This concept may appear to some as trendy, superficial or faddish “management-speak” at first blush. But I can assure you it is not. We’ve successfully used backcasting with many of the food-service chains we advise and consult with. These companies, like most of us, both fear and face the future daily and know that change is inevitable but growth is a choice.

Backcasting forces companies to assess realistically and adjust to change directly, dramatically and dynamically. By being bold enough to envision a different future first, and then tracing backwards a detailed and progressive timeline of strategies and tactics that got you there, you plainly see what you need to do, confront what you’ve failed to do, or accurately predict what competition and market forces may force you to do.

To backcast your future, a company’s team, departments or executives begin by choosing a specific date in the future and detailing exactly what your company looks like then and what significant events and processes occurred along the way to evolve you there.

Distribute long sheets of butcher paper to your teams. Have them draw a strong horizontal line across it. Detail the currentstate of your company at the far left. The ideal end vision should be marked on the far right side of the timeline.

Choose a specific and realistic future end-point date when you expect the transformation and change to be complete. For example: “Three years from today we have become the best restaurant chain in the foodservice industry.”

Now discuss and detail what your company would look like on this future date in terms of leadership, team members, customers, training, marketing, recruiting, operations, decor, menu, sales and growth.

The next step is to backcast through the specific events and choices your company made that led to and created the future ideal. Here’s the hard part: You must now collectively backward-brainstorm the specific events, progressive achievements and measurable goals that have to occur between the right and left endpoints to make the final vision a reality within the given timeframe.

Ask the team to consider questions like the ones below to help clarify the timeline’s milestones and endgame:

If our company were ideal, what would it look like?

How would we know when we got there?

How did it happen?

What specific strategies and tactics would have to occur at what time to achieve the desired goal?

Who or what would be critical to making it happen?

Who or what might be able to stop it?

Who will have a stake in, or be affected by, the changes it would create?

Who needs to be hired, consulted, involved and responsible for the implementation of this strategy and tactics?

If I were the competition, how would I try to put us out of business?

The clearer and more specific each milestone and date is on the backcasting timeline, the easier it will be to flesh out strategies and objectives necessary to get you there today, tomorrow and the day after that.

Be clear and specific: “We invested in better employee screening tools and hired only ‘A’ players from this date forward,” or “Our annual unit volume rose 5 percent because of renewed service and sales training systemwide that we implemented 90 days ago.” Avoid generalities like “hired better” or “sold more.”

Now, review, debate and agree. Once satisfied, deconstruct each milestone on your timeline and devise specific objectives and dates for implementation.

“Objectives are not fate; they are direction,” said the late, great Peter Drucker. “They are not commands; they are commitments. They do not determine the future; they are means to mobilize the resources and energies of the business for the making of the future.” In other words, you get what you focus on.

Why let your company’s future just happen when with some steadfast resolve, creative planning and disciplined focus you could create it instead?

“The question,” Pappy Sullivan once said, “is never how good we are but rather how good we want to be.” So think big, think now and don’t just wait on the future to make things better, make today as bright as you can.

As Bowie said in another song: “Some day these will be the good old days, so let’s make them worth the memory.”

Jim Sullivan’s newest book and audio book is called “Multi Unit Leadership:The 7 Stages of Building High-Performing Partnerships&Teams.” Get his free monthly e-newsletter and product catalog at

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