How retrograde analysis can increase your effectiveness

Retrograde analysis is a technique used by chess players where they determine which moves were played leading up to a given position. As a chess game progresses the chess position gets simpler, there are fewer pieces on the board, until finally there are only a few pieces left in play. According to chess grandmaster Maurice Ashley, when great players play, this final stage determines the winner.

According to Ashley, the two main benefits of studying the end game are:

  • The ability to play the end game with ease when they are encountered
  • The ability to steer the position of the game towards the simpler end game

“Knowing your end game will make current choices simpler” – Maurice Ashley

At this point, you might be wondering “okay that’s great, but how can I apply this to my day to day?”

Below is my step-by-step process which I call “Applied Retrograde Analysis”. The process consists of three steps which are Identify, Analyze and Apply.

Identify

For things related to your personal or professional life, identify a situation that you can improve upon or master. Let’s call this situation the current state. Next, identify the desired outcome. Let’s call this desired situation the future state.

Example: I seem to consistently be overwhelmed with work during the middle of a project (current state), while my colleague seems to have a steady work volume any given time (future state). This is a great opportunity to improve upon and minimize, or even eliminate high work volume during the middle of my future projects.

Analyze

In this phase of the process, analyze the actions that result in the future state. Take it a step further and analyze the actions that lead to the actions that result in the future state.

Note: The further back you are able to trace actions that created the end result, the higher your ability will be to steer those early situations towards the future state.

future-state

Table 1: Retrograde Analysis of Future and Current state

Example: From table 1, there are two simple ways which result in a steady work volume. There could be countless more, but a short list of effective methods will do.

retrograde-analysis

Figure 1: Retrograde Analysis chart

Figure 1 represents a given result (shown in red) at the center of the chart. Each concentric circle away from the center represents the number of steps back from the result. Each slice represents the actions that led to the result. The further away from the center, the more possibilities there are to ‘steer’ towards the desired result.

Apply

The final step is to apply the findings. Understanding the desired end result, we can work backwards a few steps and ‘steer’ our path towards said result.

Example: The next time I start a project, I’ll try to steer the situation so that the team sets up regular meetings. I’ll ensure I spend an hour or so planning the upcoming week. Taking these measures will increase the chances of creating the desired outcome of creating a more steady work volume for myself.

ra-graph

Figure 2: Hours worked vs. Time

As shown in the graph above, about halfway into the project, the unsteady work volume causes more hours worked than the steady work volume. Performing a retrograde analysis at this point between myself and my co-worker, we can work backwards to the divergent point and figure out steps that can be taken next time to produce the desired result.

It’s interesting to note that a retrograde analysis can be done on the unsteady work volume to figure out the steps on what not to do. However, I believe it is far more constructive focusing on what should be done, rather than focusing on what should be avoided.

As a parting thought, consider this quote by Maurice Ashley:

“In order to look ahead, it pays to look backwards

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