BHAG: The Seven Year Itch

Setting a clear and compelling long term goal will help you align your efforts and energy and ultimately achieve greater long term success. 

Jim Collins and Jerry Porras coined a term for this long term goal: the BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal. It’s pronounced “Beehag”.) BHAG’s are not mere tactical targets (“decrease lead time by 15%”), they are long term ambitions. They tie in with your organization’s core purpose (its values and mission statement) and stimulate progress.

Good BHAG’s usually border on the impossible and require a strong vision, guts, leadership and perseverance. In essence BHAG’s are about building cathedrals, not about bookkeeping or preserving the status quo. Most BHAG’s come in one of four flavours:

  • Target BHAG’s set a clear, well defined finish line. Amazon: “Every book, ever printed, in any language, all available in less than 60 seconds.”
  • Common Foe BHAG’s focus on defeating a common enemy (usually the #1 within an industry.) Nike: “Crush Adidas.” (1960s)
  • Role Model BHAG’s look at admirable examples or companies outside of the market. Stanford University: “Become the Harvard of the west.” (1940)
  • Internal transformation BHAG’s are about changing the purpose and fabric of a company. Rockwell: “Transform this company from a defense contractor into the best diversified high-technology company in the world.” (1995)

Defining your BHAG

I’ve used the BHAG-concept dozens of times in my One-Day-Strategy-Workshop to help clients focus and align their organizations. If you decide to formulate your own BHAG here are some pointers that may help you get on the right track:

  • BHAG’s are clear, to the point and easy to understand. If you need to explain it with a lot of theory, it’s probably not a good BHAG.
  • BHAG’s have a well defined goal. You either make it or not.
  • BHAG’s stimulate concrete everyday action. From everybody within your company.
  • BHAG’s energize and inspire people. They take them out of their comfort zone and make them walk the extra mile.

The Seven Year Itch

BHAG’s take a lot of time and concerted effort to achieve. They are long term goals and should not be the subject to random whims or tactical adjustment. Collins and Porras set that period at around 10 to 30 years. In my experience this may be a little too long for many companies operating in today’s world.

It took the people of Paris almost 200 years to build the Notre Dame.
It took Nike a few decades to beat Adidas.
It took Google less than decade to gently brush Altavista and Yahoo aside.

The pattern is clear. The game has changed. The increasing speed of new technology development as well as greater global mobility of money and manpower are enabling and accelerating major shifts in today’s markets. Here are some examples from strategy sessions I’ve organized for some of my clients. (They were slightly edited to make the companies unrecognizable.):

  • “In 2020 we will be the #1 or #2 in at least 10 Western European Countries.”
  • “Become the most admired company in our industry by 2020.”
  • “By 2015 we will be the top qualifying institute for higher education in the Netherlands.”

A period of 7 to 10 years seems just about right for most of the companies I work for. I guess you could call it a Seven Year Itch. It’s an itch that has people scratch a little everyday, an itch that drives improvement and innovation across your entire organization. Once your BHAG has been achieved, it should stop itching so you can stop scratching and get a new one.

So, what’s your itch?

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