Toward the end of World War II the Soviets saw a need for bombers equal to those of the United States. While they had their own design, it hadn’t proved very reliable so they asked the U.S. for some B-29s. The U.S. declined. But on three occasions B-29s made emergency landings in the Soviet Union which was then an ally against Hitler. When asked to return the planes, the Soviets denied the request. They used the planes to “clone” the aircraft and labeled it the Tu-4.

The process of taking apart an existing model in order to replicate the design is known as reverse engineering. The Soviets built approximately 800 B-29 clones.

Many people with a business idea, good or bad, tend to carry out this very process though with less success than the Soviet Union had building bombers.

When someone gets an idea for a business, they see the business in their mind as it will be when developed and successful. They generally ignore the path to that vision seeing only the destination. With the ‘vision’ clearly in mind, they begin to take it apart for the purpose of reverse engineering. They work backwards from a view of success to where they are now which is the starting point. That was a grammatical mess so I’ll give an example.

Suppose I see myself running a successful restaurant. As I play the movie in my head of me greeting important guests and commanding a competent staff, I foresee it all taking place in a large, elegant location. So I start my plan with the important steps of:

1. Thinking up a name (The key to success!)
2. Finding a location (The other key to success! Location, location, location)

Then I’ll get a license, design a menu and start thinking about how the place will look inside.

This is a recipe (let the metaphors stew) for disaster. I am reverse engineering my business plan based on a dream. I should be building dreams on my business plan.

The biggest flaw in working backward is that I am assuming, because of my vision, that the business will succeed. I haven’t looked at the market for a new restaurant in my area nor have I done any budgeting. It just looks so great in my mind’s eye.

This isn’t the time to get into all the steps of planning a business. The takeaway here is this: Starting with a vision of a successful business and working backwards into a plan does not work. Reverse engineering a business is a seductive trap for which even large corporations fall. HP can’t seem to get into the tablet market. Microsoft is bombing with Bing. Reverse engineering does not work in business.

Working backwards from vision to plan is like saying taking apart a 5,000 piece puzzle is as easy as putting one together.

Chris Reich,
FW: 80 (And moving ahead!)