How to Do Retro Planning in Project Management: Guide & Template

by Henri Gisclard-Biondi, on 21/04/2021
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Why should you use the retro planning method in project management?

As the name suggests, this project plan is built in reverse chronological order from a fixed deadline. This is especially useful when the delivery date is set from the start and cannot be moved!

But this is far from being the only benefit of this approach. Discover a definition and the other advantages of retro planning, as well as the steps to follow to build your reverse planning efficiently.

What’s more, you can even download our free backward planning template to build a chart in Excel right away!

What is backward planning

Definition

Retro planning, also known as backward planning or reverse planning, usually involves a chart built during the project planning phase. At first glance, it may seem just like a standard timeline, featuring tasks and milestones. However, it differs in terms of the way it is constructed: reverse planning is engineered from a set deadline. Hence the name reverse planning.

💡 Backward planning is often associated with event planning. Indeed, professional event planners are often subject to strict deadlines and external constraints that make it difficult to move the date of the event.

Reverse Gantt chart

The reverse planning often takes the shape of a Gantt diagram. This chart is used to get a visual representation of the different steps and phases of the project, as well as the start and end dates of each task.

You can see for yourself what a Gantt chart looks like in the example below.

What a regular Gantt chart looks like

© Teamgantt.com

Why use reverse planning?

Backward planning offers multiple advantages compared to a more traditional project management methodology.

This method could help you:

  • Avoid missing deadlines: planning the development process from the deadline is the best way to abide by the time frame given to the project. Planning in reverse gives you more visibility on your progress and the time left, thus making it easier for you to carry out risk management and avoid delays and overruns.
  • Ensure the feasibility of the project: are the deadlines imposed by the client realistic? Backward planning allows you to gauge whether or not the objectives are realistically achievable in a given time. This means you’ll be able to react more quickly if you think you won’t be able to achieve the goals.
  • Adapt the duration of specific tasks according to the remaining time: you can anticipate the leeway available to spend more time on high value-added tasks. You could also identify the deliverables on which you could afford to spend less time and effort. Overall, planning tasks becomes more granular and accurate.
  • Manage resources more effectively: this goes hand-in-hand with the precision gain on project planning. By assessing the time allowed for each task, you can also infer the number of resources required to complete the tasks on time.

Backward planning in 4 steps

Step 1: Identify tasks

First, you’ll need to define which tasks will be necessary to complete the project, as well as the milestones that will mark the completion of major project objectives.

For more visibility and better organisation, we recommend assigning each one:

  • A letter or a number,
  • A responsible, meaning who will be accountable for the completion of the task.

For even more precision and to define the roles of all stakeholders more efficiently, you can use agile project management tools such as the RACI matrix to assign duties.

Make sure you don’t overlook any task or operation in the process. Write down all the actions needed to complete the project, even the more menial tasks. Indeed, backward planning requires utmost precision to hit strict deadlines, thus any oversight could derail the tight schedule.

It is advisable to start from a global perspective and go deeper into the details as the planning process advances. In other words, start by identifying the main tasks before breaking them down into smaller chunks and secondary tasks.

💡 To do so, you can use the WBS method. This tool helps you break down and organise the project work by reducing it to smaller deliverables in the form of tasks. These are subdivided into subtasks when the project requires a finer approach. The result is used to create a diagram that can serve as a mind map to visualise the different phases of the project.

A representation of the Work Breakdown Structure

Step 2: Estimate durations

Once all the deliverables and subtasks are identified, you should estimate the duration of each task as precisely as possible to build an accurate backward planning chart. Respecting your project schedule hinges on this crucial step.

💡 Consider using 3 points estimating, which is a common technique used for calculating the duration of tasks in project management. Based on feedback from the project team and the things you learned when previously completing similar projects, assign each task:

  • A best-case estimate, to simulate a situation where everything goes according to plan, without a hitch,
  • A most likely estimate, for the most realistic outcome,
  • A worst-case estimate, to account for unforeseen events, meaning when the project is done in an adverse environment and under the worst conditions.

The final estimate is obtained by using the following formula:

Step 3: Organise tasks

Organising tasks can help you reveal task dependencies. These refer to tasks that cannot be started or completed before another is complete.

💡 This step often relies on a PERT diagram. This tool is used to organise all tasks within an interdependent network, thus revealing dependencies and the margin available before falling behind schedule.

Useful to calculate the Critical Path

© Manager GO!

Step 4: Build your retro planning

The time has finally come for you to build your backward planning.

As you might expect, all you have to do is start from the deadline, by positioning the last task to complete on the schedule on the D-Day, then the one before, and so forth (or back).

In some cases, you may not have enough room left to plan the first few tasks. This means the ideal start date is already behind you: you should thus make a decision to hit the deadline nonetheless.

  • Review your priorities or the scope of the project,
  • Adjust the time frame and delays,
  • Add resources if possible.

💡 Whenever possible, try to include some leeway into your estimates so you can stay on track even when problems arise along the project life cycle!

Free backward planning template

Are you looking for an easy way to carry out retro planning on Excel?

To help you with planning your project, Appvizer provides a free backward planning template for you to download and fill in with the details of your own project.

💡 You may also prefer using tools to do retro planning online. This functionality is embedded into a number of project management software. These can help streamline most project management processes.

With these tools and methods, you should be ready to plan any type of projects and always deliver results on time and within budget. As a-our last piece of advice for future projects, keep in mind that project success depends on the best tools, but also on smooth collaboration.

Therefore, you should bring your team together and engage team members in the planning phase to avoid missing any important step or producing inaccurate time estimates. Plan your project carefully and in detail to always be one step ahead when managing risks and delays.