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Fifty years ago this month, on 20 July 1969, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the surface of the moon.
They were just in time to fulfil a commitment made by President John F. Kennedy in a speech at Rice University in 1962:
“We choose to go to the moon in this decade… not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win...”
As well as launching the Apollo programme, this speech is perhaps the most famous example of what has come to be known in business jargon as a ‘big hairy audacious goal’, or BHAG.
The phrase BHAG was first used by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in their 1994 book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, and BHAGs are perhaps best described as a kind of supercharged mission statement – unhedged, bold and, hopefully, inspiring.
When they work, they give everyone in the company a clear idea of direction and an anchor point to which they can return constantly.
If, like me, you’ve been listening to the BBC World Service’s excellent podcast 13 Minutes to the Moon, you’ll know that Kennedy’s strident declaration worked, but at a cost.
The young scientists and technicians working at NASA were moved to work harder and with greater determination. It drove them to work late, to work at the weekend, to push to resolution tasks that could easily have dragged on for years.
But, at the same time, what if they hadn’t achieved the goal Kennedy set for them? America would have been humiliated and the Soviet Union would have scored a significant propaganda victory. As it is, they made it with less than half a year to spare.
And BHAGs also come with a negative side effect known in the US space programme as ‘go fever’ or ‘launch fever’, whereby a collective obsession with meeting the target becomes so strong it overrides common sense and good practice.
After all, nobody wants to be the one over-cautious, pessimistic ‘blocker’ who calls a halt to the project with the finish line in sight.
During the Apollo programme, ‘go fever’ led to the deaths of three astronauts aboard Apollo 1 during a launch rehearsal in 1967, as shortcuts were taken with the insulation of wiring in the command module.
For balance, from the other side of the Iron Curtain, we might also consider the apocryphal story of Soviet factory workers so desperate to meet Stalin’s industrial targets that they took to using hammers to fit screws to washing machines.
There are certain classic examples that come up time and again, many sourced from Collins and Porras.
For example, in the late 1970s, Bill Gates and Paul Allen set out the vision for their embryonic software company: “A computer on every desk, and in every home, running Microsoft software”.
Living as we do in a world where there are computers on every desk and in every home, often several, this might not actually sound all that big, hairy or audacious. Even as late as 1984, however, only 8% of US households had a computer, so it must have sounded astonishing at the time.
In the 1960s, American sportswear firm Blue Ribbon Sport (BRS) kept its BHAG simple: “Crush Adidas.” BRS morphed into Nike and, well, crushed Adidas.
In the 1970s, Honda went with something similar: “We will demolish Yamaha!”
Sony, had a more positive take back in the 1950s as Japan struggled to rebuild its economy in the wake of World War II: “Become the company known for changing the image of Japanese products as poor-quality, worldwide”.
In 1965, the founders of fast food chain Subway set themselves the challenge of opening 32 stores across the north-east of the USA – a tough ask from a cold start. (As of 2019, there are more than 42,000 around the world.)
The nuts and bolts are what distinguishes a true BHAG from a wishy-washy mission statement.
First, make sure your goal is a long-term one – a statement about where you want your business to be in, say, a decade.
Secondly, think and talk in terms of absolutes and extremes:
You don’t want to be “one of the leading…” or “among the most prominent…” – you want to be best.
Resist the temptation to add caveats. Keep it clear and unambiguous. President Kennedy didn’t say: “Time permitting, assuming the resources are available, we choose to go to the moon, or make progress towards going to the moon, by the end of the 1960s, if appropriate.”
Finally, make your target achievable, but only just. It should require a tough stretch, lots of belief, teamwork and a little luck.
If the goal you set doesn’t scare you just a little bit, it won’t inspire your team to reach for infinity and beyond.