Product Field Guide

Working Backwards

Start with the customer problem

Working Backwards

Any product initiative requires a clear vision. Vision, by its very definition, suggests a view of the future, and the more tangible and specific that future is, the more precise the vision becomes. Working backwards is a proven method to define the vision for a product.

“Begin with the end in mind.” – Franklin Covey.

Working backwards embodies Covey’s quote. The process starts with the customer and the problem, then steps through the roadmap to make it happen. It’s simple, and that’s the point: Working backwards shaves away the confusion and dead ends that come with working forwards to provide a straightforward path to the result.

Working Backwards

Here are the main steps of working backwards:

1. Start with the customer. Identify the customer and their problem with a fictional press release.

2. Deeply evaluate the opportunity. Review the press release and details with peers and leadership to decide whether the idea is worth pursuing.

3. Define the solution. Drill into the details to architect the solution and align stakeholders.

4. Build the roadmap. Define the major milestones and epic-level work items.

5. Execute the tasks. Create the detailed backlog tasks and begin executing.

Press Release

Amazon is famous for working backwards. Since 2004, each of their product launches has followed this approach because they systematized the process with PR/FAQs. A PR/FAQ is a fictional press release for the product and an accompanying list of frequently asked questions to explain the steps to make it happen. This method came from humble beginnings (not some academic theory), as the details emerged in a simple Quora answer.

Let’s focus on the PR of PR/FAQ by discussing how to write an internal memo that mirrors an external press release.

This press release is not a spec. It should not contain any technical jargon, “geek speak,” or acronyms. It should be one page long, written in prose (not bullet points), using paragraphs of 3-4 sentences in digestible language. The first draft does not need to be perfect—most go through 5-10 rounds of feedback and revision to get it right.

Focus on the customer outcome and summarize the goals concisely and non-technically. The clarity of this document will remain a north star during development.


Here’s a simple press release template:



[Location] / [Date] - [Introduction]



[How it Works]

[Customer Quote]

[Call to Action]

Each component of a press release contributes to the product’s vision. The subtitle provides a pithy explanation of the benefit, the date establishes when to work backward, and the quote anticipates how the customer will react.

Here’s guidance for crafting each component:

Title. Name the product so that the customer will understand.

Subtitle. Provide a one-sentence summary of the market and the main benefit.

Location & Date. The date sets the target, and the location specifies the company headquarters.

Introduction. Spend a sentence or two summarizing the value. Don’t bury the lede; some readers won’t scan beyond this.

Problem. Articulate the customer and their challenge, ideally using qualitative and quantitative reasoning.

Solution. Explain what will address the customer’s problem in layman’s terms.

How it Works. Briefly describe how the solution works and how customers will receive the benefit.

Customer Quote. Make up a quote from a target customer, using appropriate language to express how they’re happy with the outcome.

Call to Action. Provide the next steps (i.e., read more at [URL], sign up at [URL], try the beta at [URL].)

Appropriate Use

You can write a fictional press release for many initiatives, even internal ones—such as a new policy, process, or tool. Tweak the customer quote to reflect an internal user and change the location to a work site.

However, don’t force-fit a press release for a project that doesn’t solve a customer problem. The ease of writing a press release is a proxy for product-market fit, so if the concept of a press release isn’t making sense, it’s an indicator that the project isn’t solving a real problem.

Even if you write a compelling press release, don’t be surprised if your initiative doesn’t move forward. Most ideas won’t get funded because a company has limited resources and must discern which initiatives to pursue. That said, a press release can give your idea a fighting chance because it’s centered on a timeless fundamental: serving customers.

Work backwards by asking, “How does this benefit the customer?”

This article was last updated on 22 Jan 2024.

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