Working Backwards To Solve Problems More Effectively

I spent six months in 2021 working as an Applied Scientist in Amazon’s Supply Chain and Optimisation team. The experience was fantastic. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from the internship was how to problem solve effectively. One tool that enables this is the idea of working backwards.

To start working backwards, you first need to identify your customer. This is Amazon terminology, but we can generalise the idea of a customer to anyone who will consume your work. A gym instructor’s customer will be people attending their classes. Once you have your customer in mind, think about their needs and requirements. Equipped with this, you now have a focal point from which you can reference how useful your work is by asking yourself how well does my work meet the needs of my customer.

From here, you’ll want to identify the existing solutions and tools that your customer has available. By identifying the incumbent solution you’ll be establishing a baseline from which your solution should exceed. A better solution is one that resolves your customer’s problems, not just something that you find interesting.

Now that your problem is appropriately framed and the existing solution identified, the final task is to generate ideas. Any idea is useful here and the action of writing something down will stimulate your brain into generating higher quality ideas. For each idea, you’ll want to ask yourself “what is specific problem this idea solves?". If you can’t come up with an answer to this, then your idea may need reworking. Once you’re out of ideas, you should pick the idea that solves the biggest problem your customer experiences.

Equipped with a solution, the final task is to implement it. It’s helpful here to have a roadmap for implementing your idea. However, work backwards from your idealised final result, not forward from your current state. The reason for this is that it’s easy to go off on unimportant tangents when working forward and these tangents will either dilute down the potency of your final solution or delay its delivery time. Working backwards though forces you to constantly justify whether each intermediate step gets you closer to your final goal. The end result will be a detailed and direct route to the optimal solution for your customer.