Want to meet your goals faster? Start by describing what your ideal future looks like.
You can use a powerful tool I use when I coach agency owners—a visualization exercise I call an “Advance Retrospective.” A retrospective means to “take a look back at events that already have taken place.”
In the Advance Retrospective, you’ll write today about what a future day is like (a year from now, five years from now, or on any future date). It’s like doing a project “pre-mortem,” but with a focus on what’ll go right instead of what’ll go wrong.
Visualizing the future alone isn’t enough to actually get there—you still need to create and implement a concrete plan. But this exercise will help you understand what the ideal future looks like, so you can fill in the pieces between now and then.
What is an Advance Retrospective?
An “Advance Retrospective” is a powerful visualization exercise—where you write today about the future as if the ideal future has already happened.
You’ll talk about your schedule, and about the people you interact with. You can also write about how you feel then, compared to how you feel now.
The process—and the resulting document—helps you reach your future goals faster, because you know where you’re going and can identify the gaps you need to fill between now and then. It’s an extension of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits concept of “begin with the end in mind.”
You can write an Advance Retrospective on any topic—about running your agency, about your entire life, or about doing a specific project.
They can be any length, but I find they’re typically 1-3 pages long. Don’t like writing? You can record an audio version instead.
Example for a high-growth agency owner
Are you focused on growing as fast as possible, likely to sell your agency at a future date? Here’s how you might start an Advance Retrospective as a “high-growth agency owner“:
Today is Monday, June 14, 2021. It’s a great day because my bank just confirmed the wire transfer arrived. After nearly a decade in business, I successfully sold my agency! I’m excited about the payday, and about my new future. The team reacted well to the change. Everyone but Tim confirmed they’re planning to stay. I’ll stay on for six months to help Sara transition to running day-to-day operations. Then, I’ll take three months off before focusing on the ______ that I’ve always want to do. I made some big changes over the past five years to get here, including ______. … (And so on.)
Example for a lifestyle agency owner
Are you focused on getting a good salary while running the agency, keeping things running smoothly so you can spend time outside of work? Here’s how you might start an Advance Retrospective as a “lifestyle agency owner“:
Today is Thursday, December 21, 2017. It’s a great day because I’m wrapping up early, before taking the day off tomorrow. I’m excited about trying our agency’s new policy—taking the week off between Christmas and New Year’s. Employees love it, and it reflects the reality that most of our clients aren’t focusing on marketing that week anyway. I see a cc from Nick, confirming my lunch with Erica after the holiday. I’m enjoying our new referral partnership with Erica’s company. It never would have happened if I hadn’t gotten my schedule under control, to go to that leadership retreat. We’ve had a great 2017, and 2018 looks even brighter. … (And so on.)
Why do Advance Retrospectives work?
Writing an Advance Retrospective helps you in several ways—as a process and as a result:
- The process helps you think about what’s important to you.
- The process tends to surface gaps and solutions between where you want to be vs. where you are now.
- The resulting document gives you something to refer back to as you hit speed bumps along the way.
- The document helps you make day-to-day decisions (e.g., does a choice help or hurt on reaching the ideal future?).
- Scheduling time to write the Advance Retrospective forces you to create time to “work ON” your agency, versus putting out daily fires.
- Sharing the document with your team will help them help you reach your goals faster.
Where can you use this exercise?
The biggest place to use an Advance Retrospective is thinking about meeting your long-term business goals (e.g., where you are a year from now, or five years from now, or 20 years from now).
But there are no limits to the tool. Here are additional places to consider.
- Client goal-setting: When you’re onboarding a new client, ask the client to write about what they day will be like after the project launched successfully or the campaign has run for a year. This will show you the goals—and the type of agency relationship—they expect. (If this seems too touchy-feely, instead just ask them to describe the results they want to see.)
- Client onboarding: When you start helping a new client, ask your account managers and PMs to write an Advance Retrospective about where the relationship will be in a year. This will help people focus on meeting client goals and building a strong relationship.
- Recruiting: Need to hire a new project manager or trying to hire a salesperson at your agency? Write about what it’s like once they’re on the team and performing well. This will help you identify must-have qualities to find in the hiring process.
- Team development: Ask your employees to share where they see their job or their career at a future date. Not everyone’s going to feel comfortable sharing this with you—I recommend making sharing optional. But when you do have this information, you can help them meet their goals faster, which should help you on employee retention.
They work outside of work, too. My latest annual Advance Retrospective includes personal goals (a few of which I redacted in the version I shared with my team) and goals as a leader in AMA Triangle.
Do you have a volunteer leadership role? The process works there, too. I organize the High Five Conference—I’ll ask my core team of department directors to write an Advance Retrospective about what a successful conference looks like to them. This will help get them thinking, and also show me if there are things we need to re-align. It’ll also help me see how I can help them meet their goals—which helps me ensure that everyone wins.
How long does your Advance Retrospective need to be?
It can be any length. Most are at least one page long, but if you get inspired, you might find yours is several pages long. My 2015 Advance Retrospective is two and a quarter pages long. My very first Advance Retrospective (which I wrote in October 2010, about September 2015) was just under two pages long.
If you’re writing about a specific, granular thing—for instance, writing about how things work out when you hire a new PM—it might be just a couple paragraphs long.
When I write about a time that’s further in the future, mine tend to be longer. For some of my clients, it’s the opposite—the future is fuzzier, so their long-range Advance Retrospectives tend to be shorter.
There’s no right answer—write as long or as short as you need to write!
What can you do if you get stuck?
Writer’s block is normal—you’re thinking big things about your future; that can be paralyzing. To get un-stuck, here are some questions to consider as you write:
- What is your schedule like for the day?
- Who are the people you’re working with?
- What kinds of decisions are you making?
- How are your stress levels and general quality of life?
- What are the past decisions you made that helped you get here?
If you keep procrastinating on writing your Advance Retrospective, pay attention to that. It may be a sign that you’re not ready to make commitments about your situation. In that case, you’ll need to troubleshoot the root cause. Coaching can help you find the answers faster.
Any other tips on making the process easier?
Yes! I’ve been writing Advance Retrospectives since 2011. Here are some things that make them easier.
- Start the Advance Retrospective with a future date. For instance: “Today is Thursday, December 31, 2020. It’s a great day because _<such and such happened>_”
- Consider writing it as a walkthrough of your day, as if you were writing a diary or journal entry that evening. For instance: “I woke up, excited about finally _____. On the way to the office, I did a short call with ____ about building a partnership with her company.”
- Use recollections to highlight what’s different about this ideal future versus today. For instance: “I remember how I was always worried about finances. I now have a solid financial plan. Based on our strategy and new processes, our checking account never goes below $XXX. It’s so different from five years ago, when we almost bounced payroll.”
- Include big goals, but be realistic, too. For instance, say one of your goals is to get more inbound leads. If you aren’t getting any now, it might not make sense to say, “After just six months, we went from zero inbound leads a week to 100 leads a week.”
- Make up names for people you don’t work with yet but who’ll be in your life in the future. For instance, “I’m so glad I hired Sally as my VP of Operations. She’s keeping everything organized on a day-to-day basis so I can focus on growing the agency.” It helps to have a name as a placeholder, since it makes it easier to talk about their values, attitudes, and behaviors—which makes it easier to hire the right person between now and then.
What should you do after you’ve written it?
Write your first Advance Retrospective and then set it aside for a bit. You’ll probably want to make edits here and there, and you’ll think of new things to include. You might adjust some of your goals up or down.
Don’t spend longer than a week or two on revisions. Your Advance Retrospective might never be “done,” so set a time limit. If you’re a perfectionist, you could edit it forever. You can always adjust in the future—better to create a version that’s “good enough” for now and then move forward.
Review the document on a regular basis. This might include re-reading it during your monthly review, during your quarterly planning, and during your year-end meetings. You don’t need to print it out and look at it every day—although you certainly can. The main thing is to have it close by so you can refer to it on a regular basis, and so you can adjust your behavior to stay on track.
I recommend sharing the Advance Retrospective with members of your team and anyone else who can help you stay on track. See below for more on that.
You’ll want to update and re-write the document occasionally. I recommend once a year but you might want to revise it more or less often. Things change.
Should you share the Advance Retrospective with anyone?
It’s a very personal document, so you might be reluctant to share it. But yes, I think you should share the Advance Retrospective with people who’ll help you meet the goals you describe in the document.
Sharing has two benefits—one, it helps me stay accountable, and two, it helps people find opportunities to help me meet my goals.
When I wrote my December 2015 Advance Retrospective in December 2014, I shared a PDF version of the document with key members of my team—my marketing consultant, my assistant, my speaking consultant, and my accountant. You might also share your Advance Retrospective with your romantic partner.
Consider creating a slightly-edited “shareable” version
You might consider creating a shareable version—where you remove info that you don’t want certain people to hear.
For instance, I removed some items about my personal relationship in the version I shared with my team. And if you nearly bounced payroll last week, you may not want to include that “past” tidbit in the copy you share with your employees.
Summary: Applying this at your agency
Here’s my summary about using Advance Retrospectives:
- An Advance Retrospective is a visualization exercise, where you write about your ideal future before it happens.
- The process helps you think about priorities, and the resulting document gives you something to refer to later—for yourself and for people helping you.
- There’s no single “right” way to do an Advance Retrospective, but it’s usually easier if you write it like a diary or journal entry for a future date.
- You can use Advance Retrospectives for your own goal-setting—and with clients, team members, and colleagues in volunteer organizations.
- Use your Advance Retrospective(s) to start creating a concrete plan, to make the future results possible.
Question: What did you discover when you wrote your first Advance Retrospective?