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The One Big Thing

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.

– James Collins and Jerry Porras

In their 1996 book, Built to Last, James Collins and Jerry Porras presented the concept of the Big Hairy Audacious Goal, or BHAG. A BHAG is a goal so bold and so transformative that the organization must radically change to achieve it. The leader’s job is to emotionally galvanize the entire organization to support and work toward it, even if it could be decades away.

A BHAG is typically the result of a very serious threat or unusually lucrative opportunity. Collins and Porras identified four types of BHAGs, and give some examples:

  • Target-oriented: Achieve a specific goal, such as Boeing’s BHAG (before the term was coined) in 1950 to become the dominant player in commercial aviation.
  • Competitive: Achieve a competitive goal, such as Nike’s quest in the 1960s to “crush Adidas.”
  • Role Model: Obtain a position similar to one held by another company in another industry, such as Giro Sport Design’s desire in 1986 to “become the Nike of cycling.”
  • Internal Transformation: Create a radical internal shift,such as Merck’s 1930s effort to change from a chemical manufacturer into one of the world’s largest pharmaceutical companies.

One purpose of a BHAG is to get the team to think big rather than focusing on smaller goals. Thinking big pushes people out of their comfort zone and forces them to look at alternatives and solutions they may not otherwise consider. Although BHAGs may have timeframes as long as a decade, they still create a sense of urgency that can galvanize and motivate an organization. The timeframe of a BHAG is also often longer than the expected tenure of the leader that created it, thereby creating enthusiasm and a stabilizing loyalty to the company rather than a person.

Do any of your long-term goals rise to the level of a BHAG? Would having one help focus your efforts in the right direction? One word of caution: a BHAG must stay consistent for many years. Otherwise, it loses its impact.