Reverse engineering – productivity secret weapon!

What's the best way to make a schedule?

I’ve been fortunate to have worked with some really great project managers over the years in my corporate jobs. Some were hardcore, certified IT project managers who mapped everything out on impossibly complex spreadsheets or in project management software. Others were just really organized, detail-oriented people.

Regardless of their pedigree, I learned a ton from each of those talented project managers. Out of all the on-the-job skills I developed, I feel like project management tactics were some of the most useful and practical experiences I left the corporate world with.

One great tactic I learned to use was reverse engineering a schedule.

Most people understand the concept of deadlines and the idea of giving themselves one in order to provide some motivation. But how many people actually come up with an accurate timeline to reach their goal?

It’s not a guessing game, although I think that’s the method a lot of folks rely on. They figure “I don’t know what I don’t know” or “it took me about this many hours last time.”

Being completely unsure because you don’t have experience is justified. So is using previous experience as a rule of thumb.

Educated guesses are just fine for some projects. But what if more is at stake?

As a freelancer, the top two questions potential clients ask me, after they decide they like the looks of my portfolio… and can live with my personality (haha! j/k!)… are: (1) How much is your hourly rate? and (2) How long will it take you to do the work?

Even after freelancing for nearly 12 years, “how long will it take?” always gives me a feeling of dread. But with clients, the answer is actually easy. The answer is: “when do you need it?”  

If THEIR answer is unreasonable (eg. “tomorrow morning”), then we have a problem. But if their answer is something like: “Well, we’d like to have it ready for our conference in June. So I guess we need it two weeks from today.” Then I have something to work with.

The point here – the bottom line of this technique, if you will – is to start with the end in mind. Then work backwards from there.

Start with the end in mind and then work backwards from there.

reverse engineering a scheduleLet me give you an example. Let’s assume I want to throw a surprise birthday party for a close friend. Today is March 1 and her birthday is May 15. Instead of thinking, “What do I need to start doing today, March 1?” I should look at the calendar and ask: “What needs to be done by May 14?” “What needs to be done by May 1?” “What needs to be done by April 15?” “Oh! I need to remember April is tax season!” If I want my other friend, who happens to be a CPA, to help out, then I need to either give her a nominal task or ask for her help AFTER April 15.

“Do I need to buy all the plates and cups before May 1?” Probably not. “But what if I want to decorate using her favorite color?” March 18 is probably a good day to get some green swag on sale. Just sayin’.

You see how this works? Your planning efforts team up with your breaking-it-down-into-smaller-parts efforts and when you work backwards from the end date, magical things start to happen. And… WHOA!… it starts to come together!

What projects can YOU improve with reverse engineering?

With some of my creative clients, I frequently point to craft shows or gallery shows as a great opportunity for reverse engineering. They know the date the show is scheduled. So we work backwards from there.

I ask them to plot out major hurdles and distractions, along with their desired output of creative work, to arrive at a production schedule for their show.

It kind of looks like this:

(# of pieces of work) x (avg. time to complete work) / (number of days until the show) – (major hurdles and distractions) = time to get ready

It’s a little more art than science, but you get the idea! I’d love to hear how the concept of reverse engineering works for you. Give me a shout if you have a story!

Ciao for now, bellas!

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