Business Development Leveraging Growth Opportunities

Back(casting) to the Future: How Working Backwards Can Help Your Strategic Planning Process

I could start this article with tread-worn arguments about how important it is to develop a solid plan for 2024, especially in an environment that is shifting as rapidly as ours.

David H. Freeman, JD

But you already know that.

To save time, let’s jump right into ways you can engage in a strategic planning process that is fast, effective and most importantly, has a higher chance of being acted upon by your lawyers.


There are several ways to craft a strategic plan. You (or a small senior team) can go off to your ivory tower, build a truly brilliant plan and then present it to the masses. Or you can hire a consultant to do the same.

While these techniques may deliver an outstanding work product, it often fails the final test, which is implementation. When lawyers don’t have a hand in crafting their own future, when they haven’t spent time exploring “why” things must be done to achieve their goals, there can be a lack of buy-in and willpower to act on something that is not “theirs.”

Having run dozens of strategic planning sessions in firms of all sizes, I’ve found that including the lawyers up front is an important starting point so they feel a sense of ownership over the process and the outcome. To that end, rather than handing them a plan and telling them they must do it, have them create it themselves through a facilitated brainstorming and action planning process so they tell themselves they want to do it. One approach I’ve found particularly effective is a methodology known as ”backcasting.”

Backcasting is a strategic planning process that starts with defining a highly desirable future and then reverse-engineering actions that must be taken in the present to achieve that future. It takes what feels like far-away goals and breaks them down into manageable, sequential steps that are logical and doable.

Let’s look at how you can conduct such a session in your firm.

1. Choose the Right People

First, determine which members of the firm must be brought into the process. Include all who would have a part in its implementation and success, meaning lawyers, management and staff, all of whom might bring valuable insights and perspectives.

Depending on your firm size and makeup, you might run specific sessions for different groups (practice, industry, geographic, key clients) so that everyone is fully engaged in areas they truly care about.

2. Facilitation

Schedule about a half day and have someone run the session who does not a have a vested interest. I’ve seen situations where dominant partners lead meetings and others don’t feel empowered to speak up or disagree with their opinions. This structure can kill the kind of knowledge-sharing and team building required to build a thorough plan and set the stage for implementation.

3. Envision a Desired Future

Encourage participants to envision the firm two, three or more years in the future (but not too far out). Ask what success looks like. Consider factors such as types of clients, practice mix, new practices, market position, geographies, firm culture, internal processes, and technology. This vision should be ambitious yet achievable, stretching the firm’s capabilities without straying into fantasy.

“Clarity begets momentum, and momentum is a must for bringing plans to completion.”

4. Reverse-Engineer

Now comes the fun part. Prioritize the future goals and assign topics to breakout groups who are tasked with coming up with sequential steps that must be in place to go from their present reality to that desired future. Have them acknowledge the potential challenges and discuss ways to overcome them. This is a good pressure testing moment, because if there are issues that can’t be solved, it means the goal should not be pursued (at least for now).

5. Drill Down to Who Does What by When

While we usually call this overall process strategic planning, practically speaking, it should be renamed “strategic action planning.” If you’re in one of the many firms that have crafted plans only to see them poorly implemented, you know why an emphasis on action is so vitally important.

To ignite action, have your breakout groups go one level deeper by recommending timelines and accountability so there is no doubt about the next steps, who is responsible for managing those steps and by when those steps should be completed. Clarity begets momentum, and momentum is a must for bringing plans to completion.

6. Group Debrief

With first drafts in hand, you can now apply another level of polish. Each breakout group presents their conclusions to the full group so everyone can understand their thinking and provide their input. In this way, it shifts the process from smaller group thinking to becoming everyone’s plan.

7. Management, Management, Management

Initiatives like these often die a natural death unless your leaders consistently fan the flames. They should meet shortly after this planning session to further refine the plan. They should hold initiative leaders responsible for implementing their steps. They should make achieving the steps a priority in your important meetings and celebrate progress along the path. And perhaps, there can be some consequences for not getting things done.

In effect, each leader must take on the role of Chief Implementation Officer. While the backcasting process can set up the pins, your leaders must make sure firm members consistently knock them down. It’s this kind of one-two punch that can turn your long-desired dreams into reality.