Don’t know what to do in a tricky situation? Work backwards!

My dad’s side of my family are from Bermondsey which was the most heavily bombed part of London during the war. I have heard some great stories about them all. One of my favourites is about my Great-Grandfather Joe.”50b6f05e-efc7-4d70-b430-32c0c0129334-original

When the Second World War broke out, Joe was 16. He took himself to the army recruitment office, lied about his age and enlisted. He then came home, cap in hand to tell his mother what he’d done. After some choice words from my Great-Great Grandmother, his father – who was too old to fight – was told to go back to the recruitment office, explain the situation and delist him. To cut a long story short, his father came home with Joe and instead of keeping him in London, he’d signed up himself! So now, we had an under-age and an over-age Miller pulling on a uniform the following week!

Joe joined the 8th Army (The Desert Rats) and travelled to Africa to attack Rommel’s troops. Whilst sleeping one night, he felt something brush against his foot, looked up and saw a rifle pointing at him. With relief, he realised it was a Ghurka who quickly indicated to him to keep quiet.

So, what does this teach us and how can we use that lesson in decision making?

The answer is in working backwards. It’s an easy principle and makes sense but will take some practise to master it. All you have to do in any situation is think about what outcomes you’re looking for and then establish how to achieve them.

Think about the above situation and applying that technique:

  • What did the Ghurka want to achieve?

He wanted to know, in darkness, if the person in front of him was from the Allied or Axis forces. He probably also wanted to disturb as few people as possible. Quite likely, he’d want to be in a position of control should the soldier turn out to be a German soldier.

So, he thought about the outcomes he wanted and then how to achieve them. He knew that Allied and Axis forces wore different boots. Those boots had laces that were tied differently, one with crossed laces, the other straight. Knowing that, he positioned himself so that after feeling Joe’s bootlaces he would know what to do next – amazing right?

So, the next time you need to work out a strategy for something, work backwards!

Here’s a work-related example:

You have a team member who for the past 5 years has been a top performer. For the past 3 months, they have shown a lack of enthusiasm, have been arriving late and productivity figures have dropped.

  • What outcomes would you want after a meeting with this employee?
  • How would you achieve them?

Working in this way will ensure that you are always in control of a situation and that you have an opportunity to think about possible outcomes and how you would in turn, deal with them.

One other benefit of working backwards is that any action you take will be more rational. I’d suggest you may want the following outcomes:

  • The employee returns to their previous high-performance
  • They enjoy work again
  • They return to their own high standards of behaviour

Without thinking like this, it could be easy to be negative in that meeting and to put the employee on a performance improvement plan (PIP). Would putting them on a PIP straight away retain their dignity and make them enjoy work? Probably not. Would an ‘informal’ chat, learning what has caused the issue and then providing support to help them get back to their previous ways? Quite possibly.

If you’re at an interview and you’re asked “What makes you different?” – work backwards.

  • What do you want them to think about you?
  • What are they looking for?

Your response will always depend upon the situation. If you know they need somebody with time management skills, then think of an example to demonstrate that.

You see, work backwards and you’ll feel in more control and also, will find solutions that benefit both parties much quicker. Try it – what’s the trickiest situation you find yourself in right now? In looking to resolve it, what outcomes do you want? How will you achieve them?

I wonder; if my Great-Great Grandmother had worked backwards in 1939, would she have asked her husband to take Joe back to the recruitment office or would she have taken him herself? In truth, I’m quite pleased she didn’t, Joe was definitely somebody you’d want fighting by your side!

Paul Miller
SENIOR CONSULTANT – GOVERNANCE
T: +44 (0) 207 337 8824
E: paul.miller@hfg.co.uk

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