Most companies have goals and objectives which are often encapsulated in a mission statement. The question which must be raised however is whether these:

  • Act as a catalyst to stimulate superior performance; and/or
  • Identify the daunting challenge which must be met; and/or
  • Galvanise employees into action; and/or
  • Clearly describe what the business strategy requires.

The beginning of the financial year is normally the time when goals and objectives are set for the year and we are astounded that so many people have never heard of the term BHAG or indeed, introduced this concept into their goal setting process.

A BHAG is an acronym for “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” and was first introduced by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in their 1995 article entitled “Building Your Company’s Vision”. This concept was carried forward into their books Built to Last and Good to Great.

The definition of a BHAG is best left to the authors:

“All companies have goals. But there is a difference between merely “having a goal” and becoming committed to a huge, daunting challenge —like climbing a big mountain. A true BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal) is clear and compelling and serves as a unifying focal point of effort and acts as a 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.

A BHAG engages people—it reaches out and grabs them in the gut. It is tangible, energizing, highly focused. People “get it” right away; it takes little or no explanation. For example, the 1960s moon mission didn’t need a committee to spend endless hours word-smithing the goal into a verbose, impossible-to-remember “mission statement”. The goal itself – the mountain to climb – was so easy to grasp, so compelling in its own right, that it could be said one hundred different ways, yet be easily understood by everyone. When an expedition sets out to climb Mount Everest, it doesn’t need a three-page mission statement to explain what Mount Everest is.

Most corporate statements we’ve seen do little to provoke forward movement because they do not contain the powerful mechanism of a BHAG”.


There is obviously a plethora of examples of BHAG’s although most companies did not even realise that this was what they were setting, when they contextualised the statements listed below. BHAG’s can be categorised into the following:

Quantitative BHAG

Quantitive BHAG GraphicCompetitive BHAG

Competitive BHAG GraphicInspirational BHAG

Inspirational BHAG GraphicVisionary BHAG

Visionary BHAG Graphic


I’m sure that many managers are reading this and thinking that this does not apply to them as this is the preserve or responsibility of the CEO and the Exco to formulate the BHAG.


We often find that managers are reluctant to employ this concept and we are not sure why. Yes, the formulation of a succinct BHAG requires an inordinate amount of time and strategic thinking but if done correctly, it galvanises the team’s actions – they know where they are going, what they are aiming for and will be prepared to climb that big mountain with you.

Traditionally BHAG’s have been set at a company level but the introduction of the concept into all levels of the organisation can galvanise people to deliver extraordinary performance.

“The greatest danger for most of us is not that our aim is too high and we miss it, but that it is too low and we reach it.” – MICHELANGELO


Cognisance must be taken of the fact that a BHAG is a call to action, it is not a dictatorial decree. Therefore, the BHAG must be clearly and succinctly communicated. Of greater importance, it must be constantly communicated. Managers tend to under communicate their ideas, vision or message. The salient reason for this is that the managers have considered the idea from all angles, have examined the advantages and disadvantages and thoroughly reviewed all interdependencies. Their familiarity with the concept results in them under communicating the idea.

John Kotter, of Harvard University, found that typically managers under communicated their ideas by a factor of ten – they speak about the change 10 times less than the recipient needs to hear it.  In Kotter’s research, he found that an employee might be exposed to approximately 2.3 million words in a three-month period. On average, managers communicating a new idea or vision used only used only 13,400 words or numbers.

Psychologist Robert Zajonc referred to this need for constant communication as the exposure effect; the more we are exposed to an idea, the more comfortable we are and the more we like the idea. Essentially, an unfamiliar idea or concept requires a greater level of understanding. However, the more we hear about the concept, the more familiar it becomes to us and concomitantly, the easier it becomes to understand. Zajonc’s research indicates that employees will only become familiar with (and like a concept) if they are exposed to it between ten and twenty times.



Albert Hirscham, the eminent economist, stated that when one is confronted by a dissatisfying situation, individuals employ four methods of coping with the situation:


Exit Feedback Loop GraphicVoice

Voice Feedback Loop GraphicPersistence

Persistance Feedback Loop GraphicNeglect

Neglect Feedback Loop Graphic

Adam Grant in his book Originals plotted these four options in terms of the impact of the company:

Change The Situation Vs Maintain the Status Quo Graphic

Exit and Neglect are extremely detrimental to the organisation. Persistence is only mildly beneficial to the organisation. The only action that would be extremely beneficial to the organisation is Voice. It goes without question therefore that employees should be afforded the opportunity to voice their concerns regarding the BHAG set by the manager.

These conversations should be conducted in a frank and open manner where the employee is permitted, and even encouraged, to criticise the BHAG in a constructive manner. Such conversations may even lead to harsh and combative conversations but by ensuring that a culture of openness is inculcated, employees will be assured that they can contribute to the BHAG, improve it and a consequential diversity of ideas will develop.


BHAGS are an important as they clearly convey to teams and colleagues where you want to go. The BHAG should be challenging as it “serves as a unifying focal point of effort and acts as a catalyst for team spirit.”

However behavioural psychology illustrates that just formulating a great BHAG is not sufficient. The BHAG must be constantly communicated and employees must be afforded the opportunity to discuss, criticise and contribute to the BHAG.

Only when you ensure that all three processes are implemented will success be ensured.

For further information, please contact: Brett Hopkins on or +27 11 305 1945