How to set Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs) to do the impossible

Julia Martins contributor headshotJulia MartinsJuly 27th, 20217 min read
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When we achieve the impossible, it’s often because we believe we can do it in the first place.

That’s the mentality behind BHAGs, or Big Hairy Audacious Goals. These are things like the very first moon landing and the invention of the Internet—finish lines that seemed impossibly far away when the race began.

Articulating long-term, nearly impossible goals is hard—and sharing them can be scary. But if you want to set and achieve your core purpose, you can do so with BHAGs. Here’s how. 

What is a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG)? 

A Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG) is an inspiring, long-term goal that takes your company to the next level. BHAGs are daunting tasks that take 10-25 years to complete. They take more than hard work and know how. To accomplish these multi-year plans, you have to believe they’re possible in the first place. By setting these massive goals, you’re pushing the boundaries of what your company does and challenging your team to make massive forward progress. 

What does BHAG stand for?

BHAG (pronounced bee-hag) stands for Big Hairy Audacious Goals. The term was first coined in 1994 by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in their book "Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies."

When they’re first set, BHAGs often seem like organization-sized stretch goals that are nearly impossible to complete. Think of President John F. Kennedy’s 1961 proclamation that the United States would land a man on the moon before the decade was over. In 1961, such a claim seemed more like a dream than a possible future reality. But by setting that goal, President Kennedy inspired the United States to achieve the seemingly impossible. 

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The 4 types of BHAGs

All BHAGs share one thing in common: they’re ambitious, long-term goals. But there are different types of Big Hairy Audacious Goals you can set. The four BHAG types are:

1. Target-oriented BHAGs

These are the most traditional goals and therefore, the most common types of Big Hairy Audacious Goals that organizations set. The target represents something you’re aiming to achieve within a certain time frame. Target-oriented BHAGs are often quantitative—for example, hitting a certain revenue target by a certain year. But they can also be qualitative. The goal to land on the moon by a certain date, for example, is a qualitative target-oriented BHAG.

How to set target-oriented BHAGs: 

  • Make sure you’re selecting a target that’s big enough to inspire your organization, and far enough away to take at least 10 years to achieve. 

  • Target-oriented BHAGs aren’t short-term goals, so they shouldn’t focus on only one arm of your organization or one aspect of your business goals. Rather, identify a target that encompasses your organization’s goals.

Example target-oriented BHAGs:

  • Microsoft’s famous goal to put "a computer on every desk and in every home." 

  • Walmart’s 1990s goal to reach $125 billion in sales by the year 2000. 

Potential pitfalls and how to avoid them: 

  • Since you’re setting a single target, make sure the target is something inspiring. It’s okay if it seems nearly impossible to achieve—that’s what makes this goal a BHAG. 

  • A revenue-based target-oriented BHAG is exciting for some team members, but make sure it’s something every team member can get behind.

  • If your target is more qualitative, make sure there’s a clear way to measure success. 

2. Competitive BHAGs

Competitive BHAGs are a way for you to unite your team together against a large competitor. After all, everyone loves cheering for the underdog. Leaning into the fact that you’re behind but have a good shot of winning can be a powerful motivator for your team. Competitive BHAGs are also a great way to rally team spirit and create a sense of urgency that you need to beat your competitors. When used correctly, they serve as a focal point for everyone’s efforts that can take your company from good to great. 

How to set competitive BHAGs:

  • Identify something or someone your team is competing against, and will likely continue competing against for a long time. 

  • Establish if you want to beat them in one area or in all areas. 

  • Share the goal with your team to inspire their competitive spirit. 

Example competitive BHAGs:

  • NASA’s goal to land a man on the moon before 1970 was a competitive BHAG, since the United States was competing with the Soviet Union to be the first country to do so.

  • In the 1960s, when Nike was an up-and-coming company, their original goal was to “Crush Adidas.”

Potential pitfalls and how to avoid them: 

  • Make sure there’s a clear category leader or competitor. Ambiguity makes this BHAG confusing. 

  • Only use this BHAG if you’re the underdog. Avoid picking a close second competitor, since that isn’t particularly inspiring.

  • Don’t feel like you have to stick to the common formula. You don’t always need to directly beat someone. Instead, try to be creative with this BHAG. For example if you’re not the underdog, you can still set a competitive BHAG of beating the category and capturing a certain percentage of market share against all of your competitors.

3. Role model BHAGs

You don’t need to be an innovator to create a good BHAG. After all, achieving excellence in your category is challenging enough. That’s where role-model BHAGs come in. To set these goals, identify something that’s working well and set a goal to emulate that success. Use this type of BHAG to emulate the success of a competitor or success from a different industry.

How to set role model BHAGs:

  • Identify something you admire, or a goal someone else has achieved that’s a BHAG in its own right.

  • These BHAGs are most effective if you’re an up-and-coming company.

Example role model BHAGs:

  • Stanford University, which was founded 249 years after Harvard was established, originally (and informally) dubbed itself the “Harvard of the West.”

Potential pitfalls and how to avoid them: 

  • Before setting this BHAG, identify what makes your role model successful. You don’t want to be a carbon copy of the role model company. Instead, identify one aspect that they’ve succeeded at and emulate that.

  • Avoid using this BHAG style if you aren’t an up-and-coming organization. 

4. Internal transformation BHAGs

Internal transformation BHAGs are different from the other three types of BHAGs in that this type represents a large change to your business model. If you’re pivoting your business strategy, you can use a BHAG to represent that change—and what you hope to get out of it.

How to set internal transformation BHAGs:

  • Identify a large, organization-wide change you need to make. This could include shifting your market, altering your business strategy, or overhauling your organization. 

  • Use a BHAG to represent your new business goals and why you made that change.

Example internal transformation BHAGs:

  • Netflix’s switch from mailing DVDs to becoming the world’s first streaming service.

  • Best Buy’s transition from an exclusively in-person shopping experience to becoming a digital leader in technology. 

Potential pitfalls and how to avoid them: 

  • Implementing an internal transformation is difficult. Before doing so, make sure it’s the best thing for your company. Frequent change can reduce team morale

  • When you’re ready for an internal transformation, implement a change management process to make the transition as seamless as possible. 

Read: What is change management? 6 steps to build a successful change management process

Example BHAGs

Before you get started drafting your own Big Hairy Audacious Goals, take a look at some example BHAGs. Note that some of these BHAGs are also company mission statements, since they’re the main thing the company is aiming to achieve. Oftentimes, an organization will set out to define a mission or vision statement, without even realizing they’re using BHAGs to do so. 

Google: Organize the world’s information

NPR: To create a more informed public

Facebook: Bring the world closer together

Airbnb: Create a world where anyone can belong anywhere

Feeding America: Ensuring equitable access to nutritious food for all

SpaceX: Make humanity multiplanetary

Khan Academy: To provide free, world-class education to anyone, anywhere

Spotify: To unlock the potential of human creativity

Michael J. Fox Foundation: Finding a cure for Parkinson’s disease

Read: How The Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research gets closer to a cure with Asana

How BHAGs compare to other goal setting methodologies

BHAGs are ambitious, long-term goals. But not every goal is a BHAG. Here’s how Big Hairy Audacious goals stack up to other goal-setting methodologies: 

BHAGs vs. KPIs

Key performance indicators (KPIs) are quantitative metrics of how your team or organization is progressing towards important business objectives. Aim to set KPIs on a quarterly or yearly basis to track whether or not you’re on track to achieve your strategic goals. 

BHAGs are much larger than KPIs. While KPIs measure success on a three, six, or 12 month scale, BHAGs should take no less than 10 years to complete. Some BHAGs take upwards of 25 years to complete!

Read: What is a key performance indicator (KPI)?

BHAGs vs. OKRs

Objectives and key results (OKRs) are a goal-setting methodology to help teams set measurable goals. The OKR template states I will [objective] as measured by [key result]. Typically, Objectives are year-long goals set at the department or organization level. Key Results, which track progress towards the objective, can be set at the department, team, or individual level, and can span anywhere from a month to a year. 

Making progress towards your yearly OKRs can set you up for success and help you accomplish your BHAG. But, like KPIs, OKRs are much smaller in scope than BHAGs. After completing 10 or 20 years of successful OKRs, you may finally be able to complete your BHAG. 

Read: What are objectives and key results (OKRs)?

BHAGs vs. SMART goals

SMART is an acronym that stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic, and Time-bound. This goal-setting framework ensures goals are actionable. You can apply the SMART methodology to any goal-setting process. 

For example, if you were to use the SMART methodology with BHAGs, you simply ensure your BHAGs fit all of the SMART criteria. 

Read: Write better SMART goals with these tips and examples

BHAGs vs. strategic planning

A strategic plan is a tool to define where your organization is going in the next three to five years. This form of long-term planning helps your organization achieve big goals with clarity and focus.

While larger in scope than OKRs, strategic plans are smaller in scope than BHAGs. Depending on your BHAG, create a strategic plan to get you part of the way towards your goal. Once you’re ready to update your strategic plan three or five years down the road, you can create another strategic plan to get you one step closer to your BHAGs.

Read: New to strategic planning? Start here.

BHAGs vs. vision statements

In practice, BHAGs and vision statements are pretty similar. They’re both inspiring goals that look at the long-term success of your company. 

The main difference between a BHAG and a vision statement is the audacity of the claim. Some vision statements are bold and exciting, but they don’t defy belief the way a true BHAG does. Sometimes, doing a good job and serving your customers is more than enough. 

Take TED, the host of TED Talks, for example. Their vision statement is to spread ideas. This isn’t a BHAG because it isn’t something revolutionary—but they’re still producing amazing content and inspiring people around the world every day. 

Read: 7 steps to write the perfect vision statement

Track and complete your Big Hairy Audacious Goals

You’ve set your BHAG. Next step: accomplishing it. To make progress towards success, make sure you’re using a goal-setting tool. Goal-setting tools help you align your company goals to the work that supports them—all in one place. That way, you can keep your teams on track and inspired.

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