I am inspired to write this article today, because of Elon Musk and his incredible team at SpaceX. Today, April 8th SpaceX, founded by Elon Musk accomplished two incredible feats. First, they successfully launched 11 satellites into space on a single rocket, the SpaceX Falcon 9. This was followed by the successful landing of the first stage of the Falcon 9 stage on a floating platform in the sea, allowing it to be reused. This is a significant milestone in the history of a space program in the United States. (Note, that I did not say the United States space program.) Not bad for a startup that was founded in 2002 by a guy, who was fired from the first two companies that he founded.
Now, anyone who knows me knows that I am totally in the tank for Elon Musk. Ashlee Vance wrote an excellent biography called Elon Musk which was published by Ecco in May, 2015. In the book, Vance revealed Elon Musk’s BHAG, which is: “To enable human exploration and settlement of Mars.” In the book, Musk’s last words were, “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 Elon Musk himself. But one only has to look at the accomplishments of the SpaceX team to know, that we are not crazy! In fact, Elon Musk was more successful at hiring aerospace engineers from the top West Coast universities, any of his competitors. And, the majority of the engineers who had been interviewed for the book, believe that someday we will colonize Mars.
But what is 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 BHAG.
Where does the term BHAG come from? Most attribute it to Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, from their 1994 book entitled “Built to Last”, Successful Habits of Visionary Companies. What does BHAG mean? It means, “Big Hairy Audacious Goal.” Typically, an organization uncovers or discovers it’s BHAG. By definition, it needs to be BIG. And it should be in the future at least 10-years out. And it should cause members of the team to say “Huh?!” Even before the BHAG term was in popular use, there have been many outstanding examples of BHAG’s.
“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.
And BHAG’s are not just for large companies. I do strategic planning with a group of young local filmmakers, SRH Marketing in Milwaukee. They are some of my favorite clients. Most of our planning sessions involve a lot of swearing, beer, and cigarettes. Of course, I make them smoke outside. But in our second session, we uncovered their BHAG, and it is one of the best that I have ever heard.
Their BHAG, is: “Within 10 years, SRH will be the first filmmaking company in history to win a Cannes Lion (for advertising) and a Cannes Golden Palm (best film)”. That is a BIG HAIRY AUDACIOUS GOAL! Once we discovered their BHAG, it totally transformed their immediate goals and priorities.
Interestingly enough, when I work with business owners and executive teams, one of the biggest challenges I have is getting them to set a BHAG that is big enough. Often, the CEO is afraid to set a goal that may not be achievable. He/she doesn’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 that I work with, is that the team is looking for strong visionary leadership.
I have written about failure before, and that it is certainly a growth experience. But BHAG’s are not about failure. They are about creating an envisioned future. And while your organization may not be about colonizing Mars, I am sure there is a BHAG for you that will inspire, and help direct your team to the next level. Best wishes on a very prosperous 2016.