The power of the Big Hairy Audacious Goal

I’m inspired to write this because of Elon Musk and his incredible team at SpaceX.

SpaceX, founded by Musk, accomplished an incredible feat for the second time recently: the successful landing of the first stage of the Falcon 9 rocket on a floating platform in the sea, allowing it to be reused.

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It’s a significant milestone in the history of a space program in the United States. (Note that I did not say the U.S. space program.) Not bad for a startup that was founded in 2002 by a guy who was fired from the first two companies he founded.

Ashlee Vance wrote the excellent biography, “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future,” published by Ecco in May 2015. Vance revealed Musk’s Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG): “To enable human exploration and settlement of Mars.” In the book, Musk’s last words are, “I hope someday to die on Mars, only not on impact.”

Most of the time when I relay this to my business friends, they look at me as if I am as crazy as Musk himself. But you only have to look at the accomplishments of the SpaceX team to know that we’re not crazy.

In fact, Musk has been more successful at hiring aerospace engineers from the top West Coast universities than any of his competitors. The majority of the engineers who were interviewed for the book believe someday we will colonize Mars.

But what’s really important is that all the steps along the way – the successful space launches, the spectacular explosions and becoming the largest civilian satellite launch company in the world – are simply following the path toward the Big Hairy Audacious Goal.

That term is attributed to James Collins and Jerry Porras, from their 1994 book “Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies.” Typically, an organization uncovers or discovers its goal.

By definition, it needs to be BIG. It should be at least 10 years into the future. And it should cause members of the team to say “Huh?!” Even before the acronym BHAG was popular, we saw many outstanding examples of it.

Famous BHAGs:

“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 the Earth.” – John F. Kennedy, 1960.

“A computer on every desk and in every home.” – Bill Gates, 1975.

“Become a $125 billion company by year 2000.” – Walmart’s Sam Walton, 1990.

Big Hairy Audacious Goals aren’t just for large companies. I do strategic planning and coaching with a group of young, local filmmakers in Milwaukee. They’re some of my favorite clients. Most of our coaching sessions involve a lot of swearing, arguing and laughing. In our second session, we uncovered their BHAG, one of the best I’ve heard:

“Within 10 years, we will be the first filmmaking company in history to win a Cannes Lion (for advertising) and a Cannes Golden Palm (best film).”

Once we nailed the goal, it totally transformed their immediate goals and priorities.

Interestingly enough, when I work with business owners and executive teams, one of the toughest challenges I have is getting them to set a BHAG that’s big enough.

Often, CEOs are afraid to set goals they might not be able to achieve. They don’t want to appear foolish. I find this fear of failure and unwillingness to be vulnerable to be very common and a terrible handicap.

Leadership is all about setting stretch goals. And the one thing I find in common with every organization I work with is the team is looking for strong visionary leadership.

I’ve written about how failure is a growth experience. But BHAGs aren’t about failure. They’re about creating an envisioned future.

While your organization may not be about colonizing Mars, I’m sure there’s a Big Hairy Audacious Goal that will inspire you and help direct your team to the next level.

-John Howman is a TEC chair. He is also chief executive officer of Milwaukee-based Allied Consulting Group LLC (alliedcg.com). Allied helps mid-sized companies throughout the U.S. grow, and offers CFO roundtables and executive and company assessments.

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As a serial entrepreneur, business and community leader since 1983, John Howman has led a variety of businesses, from technology to consumer products companies. He leads two groups for Vistage, a professional development group of CEOs, presidents and business owners. He can be reached at JHowman@AlliedCG.com.

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