In Pursuit of the Big Hairy Audacious Goal

James C. Collins

[*** Editor’s note: Tom Peters asked colleagues to guest-author his column while he was traveling abroad. Tom soon returned to resume his duties.***]

Do you have a Mission Statement, or are you going on a mission? There is a vital difference.

Most companies have dreary mission statements that are nothing more than a bland description of the company’s operations—a boring stream of words that evokes the response, “True, but who cares?” The statements smack of corporate doublespeak and are incapable of tapping people’s spirit.

For example: “The corporation is committed to providing innovative engineering solutions to specialized problems where technology and close attention to customer service can differentiate it from job-shop or commodity of production operations.”

Just makes you want to go out and conquer the world, doesn’t it?

No one would disagree with such a statement, but it has all the appeal of snuggling up to a dead fish.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that creating a corporate mission is bad or irrelevant. Quite the opposite. A galvanizing mission can be of immense value.

My colleague Jerry Porras and I have extensively researched organizational vision (California Management Review, Fall 1991), and we’ve verified that mission is a key component of a complete corporate vision, along with core values and purpose.

But we also found many companies terribly confused about what makes a good mission. They confuse the drafting of a mission statement with the creation of a real mission. To be blunt: If you feel the need to “wordsmith” your mission, then you don’t have a mission.

A true mission is a clear and compelling goal that focuses people’s efforts. It is tangible, specific, crisp, clear and engaging. It reaches out and grabs people in the gut.

“This nation should dedicate itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”

Now, that is a mission. You don’t need to wordsmith it. You can say it a hundred different ways, but the goal doesn’t change: to the moon and back by the end of the decade. Period. And, most important, it did what a mission should do: It broke the country’s lethargy and got people moving forward with excitement, vigor, and renewed spirit.

Like the moon flight, a good mission has a clear finish line—you should be able to tell when you’ve done it—at which point, you have to create a new mission. “We’re going to climb Mount Everest” is a mission; the more general, “We’re going to climb the Himalayas” is not.

And, like the moon flight, a good mission is risky, falling in a gray zone where reason says, “This is unreasonable”; and your intuition and drive say, “But we believe we can do it anyway.” That’s why I like to use the phrase Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG, for short) to describe mission.

Do these missions apply to corporations? Porras and I found that they do.

Compare your corporate mission to that of Henry Ford in 1909: “We’re going to democratize the automobile.”

Consider the galvanizing effect of Jack Welch’s goal at GE in the 1980s: Become No.1 or No.2 in every market we serve and revolutionize this company to have the speed and agility of a small enterprise.

Imagine the audacity of a tiny, struggling start-up company with a handful of employees in a dilapidated war-torn Tokyo building setting this goal: to create a product that becomes pervasive worldwide and to become the company that changes the image of Japanese products as being of poor quality. That small business became Sony.

Were these the “right” missions? Wrong question. The question is: Did these missions stimulate forward progress? That’s the role of a mission—to get people going. Companies often get into trouble not because they are moving in the wrong direction, but because they aren’t moving vigorously in any direction. As Paul Galvin, founder of Motorola, pointed out, “Everything will turn out OK if we just keep moving forward. Be in motion for motion’s sake.”

So the next time you find yourself revising the corporate mission statement, ask the following questions: Do we have a real mission—a Big Hairy Audacious Goal? Do we find it exciting? Does it get our juices going?” Does it get us out of bed in the morning? Can we say it a hundred different ways, yet the goal is still clear? And, finally, is it aligned with the underlying core values and purpose of our organization? Keep in mind that a BHAG without the bedrock of deeper values and purpose lacks the spirit of great human achievement.

(Jim Collins is coauthor of Beyond Entrepreneurship: Turning Your Business into an Enduring Great Company, (Prentice Hall, 1992), Good to Great, and Built to Last. He was educated at Stanford Business School.)

(C) 1993 James Collins.

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