Don’t Know Where to Start? Reverse Engineer It!

photo-1433840496881-cbd845929862We’ve all heard the old trope “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” (Lao Tzu in case you’ve forgotten.) While this is true, sometimes we struggle to know what that first step should be. When working with someone preparing to tackle a big goal, one of the most common things I hear is “I don’t know where to start”, coupled with frustration and a bit of embarrassment. Yes, it is frustrating, and don’t be embarrassed. Starting is actually the easy part; knowing what to do first is where it can get difficult.

I often struggle with this challenge myself. As I begin to define a new project, either so many tasks or options present themselves that I become mired in analysis paralysis, or I stare at the proverbial (and sometimes literal) blank sheet of paper. So how do you figure out where to start?

There are two ways to approach this problem. One method is to adopt a bias toward action, and do something. Anything. The idea is that any step toward your goal, even if it’s an indirect route, is progress. You adjust as you go, and you learn a lot about what works and what doesn’t along the way. This method works – and can result in some serendipitous discoveries along the way. On the down side, it can take longer, and requires more resources – especially time and effort. I find this is particularly useful for writing – blog posts, proposals, and articles. Sometimes I start in the middle, and by the time I get to the “end” I know what I am writing about and go back and write the beginning. But for larger projects, or projects that involve producing, building, or managing external resources, this approach just doesn’t work. You need a real plan, and a method for producing one.

Many people, particularly “makers” have told me that they struggle with planning and how to build a plan. The best way I know to start, particularly if you don’t have a template, is to reverse engineer the problem. What is reverse engineering? Taking something apart to understand how it works, and figuring out how to duplicate or improve its construction. 

Funny thing about starting. You can spend a tremendous amount of time starting. And not get anywhere. So let’s focus on the end instead. The “end” we understand, right?  It doesn’t necessarily have to be the final end, just a point at which a major milestone will have been reached and a product, service or result can be clearly defined. What are you working toward? Can you define it? In detail? If you can’t, then no wonder you’ve had trouble starting. If you don’t know where you want to go, how do you know which road to take?

Once the goal is clearly defined, we start asking questions. 

What will it take to get there? What tasks are critical – the project can’t be successful without them? What tasks are “nice to have”? Make sure to identify those tasks that you think you should do because someone else did it that way, and determine if you really need to do those things. As you continue on this analysis, you are taking apart the end result until you have a set of component parts that can be studied, evaluated, and measured. The next step is to figure out how to put all those pieces back together again. Which steps, in which order, will give you the result you are looking for. This is your plan, and now you have the first step.