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Should You Set a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal)?

February 11, 2022
6 Min Read

Should You Set a BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal)?

There are so many metrics and methods out there to set goals, track growth, and measure success. Almost too many, you might say. But for the startup committed to making an impact, a BHAG – a Big Hairy Audacious Goal – could be exactly what you need.

A BHAG is a long-term goal that will inspire your startup to greatness over the next 10 to 30 years. But that doesn’t quite articulate its power. A BHAG is big, audacious, outrageous, and almost unachievable. Armed with a BHAG, you’ll set out how you’ll redefine your industry, transform your customer’s lives, and become the biggest and best company you can be.

Let’s talk about why your startup would benefit from a BHAG and how to set your own.

What is a BHAG?

A Big Hairy Audacious Goal is about thinking big. In fact, it could be the biggest goal you’ll ever set. Your BHAG will be the guiding light you’ll set your sights on for the next decade, two decades, or even longer. 

The BHAG is a term first coined in the nineties by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in their book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. Some call it a stretch goal, but that doesn’t have quite the same effect. A BHAG is not just another goal on a different timescale. 

Instead, it should be exciting, inspiring, and galvanising – and show how you intend to change the world. 

In this way, a BHAG should probably:

  • Aim for many years in the future. Maybe a decade even. Maybe two.
  • Be only 50-70% achievable. To reach your BHAG, you’ll have to give your all. But that means failure’s a real possibility. That’s the point. 
  • Not depend on you. As a founder, you and your current executive team may not stick around to see your BHAG achieved. But by defining a long-term vision, you’ll guide your startup into the future.
  • Be visible, if not “measurable”. It should be concrete and clear to everyone in your organisation when your BHAG has been completed. 

Heads Up: What a BHAG is Not

With so much goal-setting and tracking terminology out there, let’s nip any confusion in the bud. A BHAG is valuable precisely because it isn’t like other techniques. Instead, it’s long-term, precise, and emotive. Here’s what a BHAG isn’t:

  • A core value or vision (although it’s close). A vision or mission is usually forever, an ongoing endeavour. But a BHAG is a concrete goal to achieve, and then move on from. Once you’ve reached this one, aim for the next.

  • A North Star. Less a goal than a single headline metric to measure success, a North Star metric could be daily users or time spent listening. It could tell you when you’ve reached your BHAG, but usually won’t be enough to inspire all by itself.

  • Objectives and Key Results (OKRs). A goal-setting tool associated with the likes of Google, OKRs are short-term (usually quarterly) targets that help create alignment and track growth across your organisation. You can use these alongside your BHAG, but they’re not the same things.

Why Your Startup Should Set a BHAG

You already have other goals. But why would your startup want another – especially one you’ve got half a chance of failing? The value of a BHAG is not just the beauty of its completion. Instead, an audacious goal offers benefits to your startup today.

  • A BHAG focuses you on your vision. It’s about who you want to be and how you’ll define the future, as much as what you want to achieve. For team morale and motivation, that’s indispensable.

  • It’s an antidote to daily churn. Without a clear vision, it’s easy to get bogged down in individual campaigns, metrics, and tasks and lose sight of the bigger picture.

  • It galvanises your team. A BHAG is emotive and inspiring and helps give your team appetite, focus, and a unifying point of effort.

  • A BHAG forces transformation. A goal has limited value if you know you can achieve it. By setting a goal for decades away, you’re defining a future beyond your startup’s current capabilities. You need to grow – and a BHAG gives you the destination.

While a BHAG is a long-term goal, it should inspire urgency. You won’t achieve that goal unless you start right now. Let’s see how you can get started with your own:

Types of BHAGs (with Examples) to Inspire Your Own Audacious Goal

Collins and Porras (who wrote the book we mentioned earlier), give four examples of types of BHAG. Take a look at these to see how other companies have used Big Hairy Audacious Goals to transform their own industries and the world: 

  • Quantitative or qualitative. We said BHAGs don’t have to be metrics, but they can be if you want. The first type of BHAGs are measurable goals or those based on market dominance:
  • “Become a $125 billion company by the year 2000.” (Walmart, 1990)
  • “Become the most powerful, the most serviceable, the most far-reaching world financial institution that has ever been.” (City Bank, 1915)
  • “Become the dominant player in commercial aircraft and bring the world into the jet age” (Boeing, 1950)

Note: It’s not great for startups to fixate on revenue-based targets, particularly in the early days. This can make you cut corners, rather than build a firm basis for sustained growth. Instead, as a goal, purpose might be more important than profit. For now.

  • “Common enemy” goals. These are goals that aim to topple an existing company. For example:
  • “Crush Adidas” (Nike, 1960s)
  • “We will destroy Yamaha” (Honda, 1970s)

Obviously, “crushing” is not exactly a specific, tangible goal. But your startup could assess competition using key performance indicators like market cap, revenue, or net promoter score. The benefit of these goals is that they can be really inspiring.

  • “Role model” BHAGs. Goals that take inspiration from another business in a different industry:
  • “Become the Harvard of the West” (Stanford University, 1940s)
  • “Be the Uber of …”

These BHAGs show your ambition to be up there with the greats, based on their reputation for innovation, disruption, or quality. 

  • Finally, company transformation goals. As Collins and Porras say, these tend to suit well-established companies with an existing reputation. As a result, this might not be best for your startup (right now, at least!):
  • “To transform this company from a defence contractor into the best diversified high-technology company in the world” (Rockwell, 1995).

How to Set a Big Hairy Audacious Goal

So, how can you set your own BHAG? Follow these steps:

  • Define your vision. A BHAG starts from the sort of business you want to be. You should know this already. But look beyond your product. Instead, how do you want to transform the lives of your customers? What do you want to be known for?

  • Look into the future. Where will your industry be in a decade? How about two? And how are you going to be at the heart of it? A BHAG helps your startup build the future you want.

  • Take the Goldilocks test. If your goal is too easy, it won’t galvanise your team enough. Too difficult and no one will engage. A BHAG is arduous but not too arduous; audacious, but not too audacious. Aim for 10 years down the line.

  • Communicate it well. A BHAG should be clear, easily understood, and immediately engaging. Too wordy and it turns people off.

  • Never lose sight of your BHAG. To engage and galvanise your team, put your BHAG at the centre of your communications. Everyone should aim for that until it’s complete.

Into the Future: Achieving Your BHAG

Now you’ve set your Big Hairy Audacious Goal, you need to set about achieving it. To get there, you need to make your startup the best organisation it can be. 

That means hiring the right people, setting performance targets, and building a super-powered growth team to scale your company.

At Traktion, we can help. We match companies with top tier growth marketers based on over 100 different factors. To hit your BHAG, outsourced marketing talent might be exactly what you need. Find your perfect match here

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