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Checkmate your Projects with Retrograde Analysis

I stumbled recently upon an article in Inc. on how retrograde analysis from chess might apply to projects./1/ Like many, I have played chess all my life, but never seriously. While I knew that grandmasters cannot see more moves in advance than we mere mortals, I did not know about retrograde analysis. Indeed it offers some ideas for improving our projects.

Here’s how retrograde analysis works in chess. At any position in the game, we ask, “what must have been the moves that led to this position?” By understanding a game’s retrograde history, a chess player can then work out ways to achieve or avoid the position in future games. Given the game’s rules, the logical paths are more limited than one might think. Apparenty, it’s especially useful in the later stages, where the game becomes simpler. With the knowledge of looking backward, the grand master steers her next game to her advantage, and as grandmaster Maurice Ashley says, “to know where we (e.g. the game) were going”.

Since Inc. Magazine is a business rag, it suggests how retrograde analysis might apply to projects and business. The idea is simple: Look at the late stage of a project to study how we got there. Then use that knowledge in future projects to manage them better. In this way, it is a sibling of our retrospectives or lessons learned sessions to identify improvements.

Retrograde analysis is different, however, as it more specific and focused on the chain of decisions and events. It asks, if a project is X Euros over budget by stage three, what decisions or events specifically led us to this result? By nailing down those exact decisions, we can plan and manage the next project better. Furthermore, at any given moment, the number of reasonable decisions is limited, and we sometimes feel restrained by these constraints. Thus, retrograde analysis tells us how we specifically got to that point.

We might also ask: At what point in the past could we have seen this result coming? A retrograde analysis can identify the starting point of an apparent chain reaction. Although real life, like chess, may only have a few logical paths stemming from key decisions, we can use retrograde analysis to forecast those paths earlier and thus make us work a bit harder at seeking other possibilities.

We need to remain aware of the hindsight fallacy, however. Retrograde analysis depends on hindsight, but at the moment the decisions were taken, not all information was known. So, the key questions are: “Could we have known this, if we had looked properly?” or “How could we have discovered the missing information before we took the decision?”

A few tips:
    1. Focus on decisions, and especially those involving planning. Most errors in execution follow from insufficient planning, analysis or estimation or from poor assumptions.
    2. Keep the analysis specific, but generalize the improvement measures. It is simply not true that we always estimate poorly. Rather, we misestimated this case by a factor of x, because we believed y. Thus our improvement measure might be: we need to validate all estimates during the planning and verify them early during execution.
    3. Use techniques such as “5 whys” to work backwards or Ishikawa diagrams to ensure completeness.
    4. Perform retrograde analysis preferably as a team, so as to enrich the perspectives on the chain of decisions. (But, be aware of how the team culture handles mistakes. Is it open, transparent and respectful enough to avoid the blame game?)
      Has anyone used this or a similar technique?  Any additional wisdom about this idea?

      Notes

      /1/ Justin Bariso, “What a Chess Grandmaster Can Teach You About Solving Problems”, Inc. Magazine, 23 May 2016; available a http://www.inc.com/justin-bariso/a-chess-grandmaster-shares-an-effective-trick-for-solving-any-problembr-.html

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