What I've Learned From Failure
As we move through the business world, we encounter the word “BHAG.” It’s an acronym for Big, Hairy, Audacious Goal. BHAGs are intended to be rallying points, used for motivation and to communicate vision in objective form.
There are four words in “BHAG,” and each one has a specific meaning:
Big: The “big” in BHAG stands for impact, specifically impact on the business. For example, if you are trying to make a kickstarter, and you need $100,000 to get going, a BHAG might be $500,000. Five times as much money. Not just because wow, $500,000 is five times as much money as $100,000, but perhaps because with $500,000, you can skip or delay a round of financing, and that has all sorts of positive implications in other ways. Or because with $500,000 you can invest in certain tooling. Or something else that is more than just “More sales,” but has an important and transformative effect on the business.
“Big” stands for “Big impact.”
Hairy: A “hairy” venture is one with lots of loose threads. Unknowns. Things we don’t understand. They might be hard to deal with, they might be easy, we don’t know what they are, much less how to deal with them. Hairy ventures involve research and learning. Iteration. Repeated failure. If you can waterfall a project, it isn’t hairy. If making $1,000,000 in sales just involves spending $X on salesperson salaries and grinding it out month after month, that may be a big goal, but it isn’t a hairy goal. But if you are trying to build machine learning that will combat trolling on social media… You have a hairy problem indeed.
“Hairy” stands for “A hairy problem to solve.”
Audacious: An “audacious” project is one that everyone–including you–thinks is out of your league. That’s audacity. Trying the impossible. Audacious means risky. That may sound like “hairy,” but hairy is all about risk from unknowns. Audacity is all about risk you know about and are staring at right in the face. If you say that you have a BHAG, but if everyone executes as planned you can make it… You may have a BG, possibly a BHG, but not a BHAG, because it isn’t audacious to attempt the doable.1
“Audacious” stands for “You’re unlikely to succeed, and you know it.”
Goal: All BHAs sound like they’re goals, but people forget that the two basic requirements for a goal are “a Dream and a Date.” The marrying a dream with a date is what makes something a goal. One million dollars in annual recurring revenue is a dream. Accomplishing this by 2017-Q3 is a goal. Furthermore, the immediate follow-up to setting a date is that there must be some way of inspecting your progress and declaring whether you are done. How else can you know if you’ve hit your date? To have a goal, you must have an objective way of measuring whether you have succeeded. This is often called “done-ness.”
“Goal” stands for “A date and a way to know if we’re done.”
That’s it. A BHAG has big impact, solves a hairy problem, is audacious for you to attempt, and has a goal you can test with a date and a measure of done-ness.
Things held out as “BHAGs” that don’t have all four aren’t BHAGs: They’re other things. Possibly important, compelling, and useful things, but they aren’t BHAGs. They’re BHGs, BAGs, BHAs, or whatever. Nothing wrong with that.
If you’re really good at iterating on feedback from customers, you might have a Big, Hairy Goal to introduce a new kind of product and make a certain important level of success you can measure. Although you have a lot of wild stuff to figure out, deep in your heart you have confidence you’ll get it right.
That’s a fine goal. Nothing to sneer at just because it’s a BHG. Likewise, some things are Big, Hairy, and Audacious, but they aren’t goals. That might be a value. Something like “To organize the world’s knowledge.” Big. Very Hairy. Audacious even for one of the world’s smartest companies. But not a goal, because there’s no way to find out when you’re done or a date to shoot for.
So why BHAGs?
Although other kinds of visions and objectives are useful, there is tremendous value in having a fully formed BHAG. Each of the four words plays a specific and important role.
Although other things like BHGs and BHAs have value, we can see that having a BHAG that is truly Big, Hairy, Audacious and a Goal priovides the greatest value to companies and to us as individuals. So don’t settle for less, in business or in life. Have or find a BHAG that meets all four criteria.