The ClientWise Blog

Big Hairy Audacious Goals

Posted by Chris Holman on Mar 15, 2011, 12:06:00 PM


On this date, 15 March44 BC, Julius Caesar was assassinated. Caesar was the Roman general who was too successful in achieving his “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” of centralizing his dictatorial power within the Roman Empire.

2040 years later, James Collins and Jerry Porras first proposed the term Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) or Bee-Hag in their 1996 article entitled Building Your Company's Vision. In the article, the authors define a BHAG as a form of vision statement, "...an audacious 10-to-30-year goal to progress towards an envisioned future."

“A true BHAG is clear and compelling, serves as unifying focal point of effort, and acts as a clear catalyst for team spirit. It has a clear finish line, so the organization can know when it has achieved the goal; people like to shoot for finish lines.”

In the authors’ view, BHAG’s are a powerful mechanism for highly visionary companies to stimulate progress, and stay on top. One of their corporate examples was that of Boeing in the 1950’s. At the time, Boeing had no presence in the corporate market; 80% of their business had been with one client…the US Air Force. All previous commercial attempts had been failures.

In Boeing’s case, they bet the company (one-quarter of their corporate net worth) on building the prototype for a jet. In 1957, on a rainy day in Renton, Washington, the first 707 flew off into the clouds and revolutionized commercial travel by introducing the “jet age”. Competitors, like Douglas Aircraft, never caught up.

When organizations set goals, BHAG’s are seen as an important element in setting a high-performance culture. By setting extremely ambitious targets, it can cause one to think creatively about achieving these goals, and be energized and motivated to move the organization forward.

There is an art to setting stretch targets. On the one hand, research has shown that having some anxiety about the achievement of a goal is a good thing. However, goals that are set arbitrarily, without the participation of all who are expected to work toward this end, can be problematic. Moreover, goals must be realistic. If one doesn’tbelieve that a goal is attainable, the entire exercise can be counter-productive, and possibly demotivating.

To Tame Your BHAG, Try This

  1. Exhibit courage, and a willingness to take on risk. Even small increases in productivity can have profound, knock-on effects.
  2. For teams, build the confidence of the team-members to embrace the new reality...breaking through self-imposed limits and expectations.
  3. Increase team involvementto raise the bar. Leaders should be clear about expected outcomes, but allow employees the freedom to decide how the tasks are implemented.
  4. Follow through and stay the course. Don’t shift priorities each week, or each month.
  5. Identify, and emulate, peak performers.When high performers are not recognized or rewarded for exceptional effort, overall performance often declines.
  6. Utilize the support that emanates from team dynamics. Indeed, among some teams goals become overly ambitious and must be scaled back.
  7. Improve processes. Great teams, and great leaders, lower the process barriers.
  8. When a lofty goal is met, celebrate and reward.
On a cautionary note, not all attempts to best the BHAG are successful. In 1999, Durk Jager, a manager with a reputation for ruthlessness, ascended to the CEO throne at Procter & Gamble. Jager was known for his motto, "If it ain't broke, break it!" Jager announced job cuts that amounted to 15,000 in job losses, tore up the company's multi-layered bureaucracy, and pushed "stretch goals" on all employees. Eighteen months later, P&G had missed profit forecasts on three separate occasions...and had lost $75 billion in market value. In hindsight, Jager had pushed P&G, a company with a corporate culture that was somewhat risk-averse and inbred, too far and too fast.

"The greater danger for most of us lies not in setting our aim too high and falling short, but in setting our aim too low, and achieving our mark."...Michelangelo

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Topics: Goals