I love Jim Collins’s concept of the BHAG – the Big Hairy Audacious Goal. I’ve been involved with three of them, two professional and one personal, and they’re among the most important, memorable and rewarding experiences I’ve ever had.
Not only were the pursuits of these BHAGs thrilling and challenging – the sort of thing from which you can’t help but experience growth – but achieving them made a real impact. I’m glad I was part of them. I think everyone should be part of the pursuit of at least one BHAG.
But I also want to warn you about something: The aftermath of the BHAG can turn into a real letdown – the sort of thing that might even cost you the people who were most instrumental in achieving the BHAG in the first place.
Also: That is not necessarily a bad thing, although you will probably not see it that way at the time.
The decision to chase a BHAG is a special event. It’s the combination of a unique opportunity, a crucial need and the right timing. You can’t be chasing BHAGs all the time because the point of the big goal is usually to set you up for a smoother and more sustainable path to success. At some point, as we’ve discussed previously, you need to be finished with the BHAG and focus on turning the flywheel.
But sometimes you have to achieve a BHAG in order to get the flywheel to turn as it should, and when you’re in the middle of that pursuit, there’s nothing like it.
In 2000, I was hired as a network engineer for Cornerstone University, just months after the university president had embraced the BHAG of equipping every freshman at the school with a laptop. Of course, it wasn’t simply a matter of buying laptops and handing them out. They needed to be customized. The school’s IT infrastructure had to be seriously upgraded so it could function like a real network.
This was a massive undertaking, and I led it with a shoestring budget and a lot of student workers (along with three professional staff members). We had to transform an assortment of completely antiquated technology into a state-of-the-art network, in addition to acquiring all the laptops, unboxing them and configuring them.
The staff needed laptops too, because everyone at the university had to be operating on the same system. And of course, everyone had to be educated about how to use this entirely new system. And we had to rewire dorm rooms and classrooms. It was a gigantic challenge, and looking back I’m astonished we pulled it off.
But we did. We accomplished the BHAG. And at that point all I was expected to do was manage what we had built.
Within three months, I was looking for another job. But why? Was it because I didn’t like my boss? The university’s mission? My pay? My co-workers? The organizational culture?
No, no, no, no and no. I loved them all. Still do. But after achieving that BHAG, the thought of just sitting there every day and acting as a caretaker over what we had built was not appealing to me. The entire experience of working there suddenly changed from a constant rush of challenges to a fairly mundane day-to-day existence.
That was fine from the school’s perspective. That’s why we built the network, and it’s exactly how we wanted it to run. If you’re always chasing IT goals, you’re not doing the primary thing people expect you to do, which in the case of Cornerstone University was educating students. The point of the BHAG was to enable simpler and better operations going forward, so someone in my position could simply function as a caretaker without having to deal with massive challenges all the time.
Except that I didn’t want to be that person. I like massive challenges. And when you decide to pursue a BHAG, you need to bring people like that into your organization. They’re just who you need at that point in time, and you’re not very likely to accomplish a BHAG without them.
But ongoing management of a robust system that’s designed to largely run itself requires a different kind of person – one with just as much value as the serial BHAG-chaser. There’s nothing at all wrong with having the ability to keep things running smoothly, even if no one much notices you’re there. There’s nothing wrong with finding satisfaction in such a role.
It’s just that whoever fits that role is probably a different person from the BHAG-chaser, although it’s not likely most organizations are going to see it that way in the moment. No one is going to hire someone to accomplish a big goal and then, upon their success, fire them. You would think the chance to live a quieter day-to-day life would be part of the reward of achieving the BHAG.
That’s often not how it works. What follows the BHAG might be described as BHAG fatigue. If company leaders aren’t careful you could find your team suffering from lethargy that lasts for months.
So what do you do about it?
An easy temptation is to say: Let’s pursue another BHAG! That is almost always a mistake. The reason you pursue a BHAG is that there’s a strategic need for it, and a real advantage to accomplishing it. You don’t chase a BHAG just for the sake of chasing a BHAG. And when you try, your people will quickly recognize that it’s a contrived goal.
The best way to deal with the post-BHAG letdown is to be prepared for it. Some of the people who achieved the BHAG for you might stick around if you’ve presented them with a long-term picture of the company’s plans – and how they fit in them. Some might enjoy their role in turning the flywheel every day.
But being prepared also means not being gobsmacked if some of your key people leave and go looking for another company that needs to achieve another BHAG. It’s the nature of some people – present company included. Use it as an opportunity to fill the role with someone more suited for what you’ll need in the post-BHAG era.
You could have bigger problems than a well-conceived system that operates efficiently, along with the opportunity to find just the right people to run it for you. Just don’t be too surprised when it happens.