The Three Dimensions of the Big Goal

The research is conclusive: teams perform better when they’re shooting for a Big Goal. Jim Collins (of Built to Last fame) called it the BHAG, for Big Hairy Audacious Goal!

But then what? Here’s a handy way of thinking about goals for your group. Consider three interlocking scales:

Three Dimensions of the Big Goal1. Push the Envelope or Hold the Fort. The received wisdom is that you’ll want about one big goal that will carry your organization to a new place. “Introduce the new gigulator to the market by October 1st.” Excellent.

But in the meantime, you’ll also need a few goals just to keep the lights on. “Meet Production Commitment of 750 current model units shipped by the end of the year.” You’ll want to track that Hold the Fort goal as well. The idea is to artfully balance the two kinds.

2. Stretch Goals. I personally don’t like them. The definition of a stretch goal is that we’re only 70% likely to achieve it. I think stretch goals can burn people out, and can be demoralizing when the team falls short. But, the research finds that organizations perform at a higher level with stretch goals than with easier goals that everyone is 100% committed to. Go figure. I still vote for Committed rather than Stretch.

3. Distributed throughout the Organization, or Focused on just one or two departments. In my Silicon Valley experience, I found that goals shared by the whole company were much more fun and effective. In the mid-80s, Hewlett-Packard focused the entire international company on improving the reliability of our electronic instruments by a factor of 10. Yes! A big, big goal. The engineering staff that I was managing at the time thought it was impossible, almost nuts…but we did it! That BHAG truly brought out the best in the whole corporation, and the impact lasted for decades.

I think setting out a Big Goal is one of the best, most energizing things you can do to move your company forward. If you decide to do it, keep these three dimensions in mind. Make wise choices along each. It will pay huge dividends for a long time!