BHAGs – The missing link between vision and accomplishment

We’ve all seen them, read them, and maybe even written some of them – lofty vision statements that are meant to inspire our teams and spur forward action. But do they? More often than not, there’s a missing link between vision and action: concrete goals and a plan for fulfillment. A plan that reaches beyond the annual or three-year strategic plan and provides a bridge to a future where that vision is realized.

A BHAG can provide that critical link.

A BHAG (bee-hag) or “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” is a long-term goal that focuses, energizes, and mobilizes an organization’s people around an ambitious, common objective. A BHAG involves reimagining the situation and pushes people to think in leaps rather than incrementally. Pursuing a BHAG pushes boundaries and stretches the capabilities of an organization.

The term was coined by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in their book Built to Last. Collins says, “The power of the BHAG is that it gets you out of thinking too small. A great BHAG changes the time frame and simultaneously creates a sense of urgency…it grabs people in the gut, gets the juices flowing, and creates immense forward momentum.”

“BHAG” stands for:

  • Big–It’s not something that your organization can accomplish in 1, 3 or 5 years. It may take a decade or more to accomplish something this ambitious.
  • Hairy–The idea may seem slightly absurd because it is so beyond the ordinary. It should be a stretch but have a 50% to 70% chance of success.
  • Audacious–It should make people take notice but also strike them as the perfect project for your organization to tackle.
  • Goal–Like any goal, it must have a plan for fulfillment with clear, measurable objectives.

A BHAG should energize people, generate momentum and forward progress. It should inspire people to dedicate their creative energies to it. BHAGs often have the power to engage people in ways that a mission doesn’t. Some BHAGs resonate even with people outside the organization.

An iconic example of a BHAG is President John F. Kennedy’s May 25, 1961 declaration “that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth,” which led to the first humans stepping onto the Moon on July 20, 1969.

Four common types of BHAGs.

  1. Target-oriented, which could be date-based, like Pres. Kennedy’s 1961 challenge. It could be a certain number of clients or communities touched.
  2. Competitive, which is aimed at surpassing an identified competitor.
  3. Role model, which involves choosing another organization or situation and attempting to replicate its success. (This approach is best for smaller, emerging organizations or latecomers to a particular market.)
  4. Transformational, which aims to radically alter or reinvent a situation or organization. (Most nonprofit cases are candidates for this type of BHAG)

Similarities and differences between a BHAG and a vision.

A vision is a statement of an organization’s long-term aspirations and serves as a guiding principle in decision-making and in strategic planning. Thus, visions share some similarities with BHAGs. Both aim to inspire and motivate employees and stakeholders. And both are used to guide decision-making and strategic planning.

However, a BHAG is more specific and actionable than a vision. BHAGs involve specific targets or benchmarks that must be achieved in order to reach the goal. A vision usually doesn’t specify how the goal will be achieved.

Similarities and differences between BHAGs and OKRs.

OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) are a goal-setting framework that involves setting annual or quarterly objectives and key results that specify the way to achieve the objective as well as the measures that will track progress. Both BHAGs and OKRs (especially “aspirational” OKRs) involve change. They involve ambitious goals that challenge the organization and motivate its employees. Neither of them can be solved with off-the-shelf thinking. And while BHAGs and aspirational OKRs both represent a stretch, a BHAG represents a much larger scale and a longer-term commitment. In short, OKRs usually aren’t as visionary or revolutionary as BHAGs. And BHAGs are long-term commitments that will be realized a decade or more in the future; they outlive the typical OKR cycle, which is annual or quarterly.

What a BHAG can do for your organization.

A BHAG can help you create urgency, reduce narrow thinking, and redefine your purpose. It also provides a more distinct North Star for your strategic plans, OKRs, or other plans – more tangible than mission and vision.

A worthwhile BHAG should elicit a “yes” to these questions:

  • Is it clear, compelling, and straightforward? Is it definitely big, hairy, and audacious?
  • Does it align with the organization’s purpose?
  • Do you find it exciting? Will everyone in the organization find it exciting, not just executives?
  • Is it doable? If your organization is fully committed, do you have a 50% to 70% chance of achieving it?
  • Will it push you? Will achieving it require a quantum leap in the organization’s capabilities and characteristics?
  • Is there a clear picture of success? In 25 years, could you tell whether you have achieved it?

How to create a BHAG.

  • Ask, what is your organization passionate about? Your BHAG must speak to the hearts and minds of your organization’s people in order to be fully embraced.
  • Consider the things you can do better than anyone else in your field. What would “best in the world” do? Aim high, or it won’t be worth your time and effort.
  • Review the financial factors that are likely to have the biggest impact on your organization. Ask, “what would have the greatest and most sustainable impact on our economic engine over time?”
  • Create a vision for how your organization (or situation you aim to change) will look after the BHAG is achieved.
  • Make sure your BHAG goals are clear. Clarity will help you create a realistic roadmap and outline concrete measures of success.
  • Even though ten years may seem like a long time, achieving a BHAG requires attention and action in the present. On the way, your long-term objectives should serve as a compass for your annual and 3- to 5-year plans.

Make sure it’s the right BHAG.

Pursuing a BHAG requires a major commitment of resources and energy. Thus, it’s important to ensure that you have the right BHAG, and that you’re on the right track toward its achievement. This final set of questions can help.

  • Is it clear, concise, and compelling?
  • Is it doable if we’re committed?
  • Is it aligned with our organization’s purpose?
  • Is it effective in moving us forward?
  • Are our team members ready to put their creative energies and commitment behind it?
  • How will our organization look if we pursue it? What will happen if we don’t do it?
  • What needs to happen to make it a reality?
  • What obstacles might stand in the way? How will we overcome them?
  • How do we define success? How will we measure it? How will we track our progress on the way?

It’s important to make sure you have the right BHAG for your organization. And that you make it the center of your planning and aspirational efforts.

Photo by Markus Winkler