I first came across the concept of a BHAG — a big hairy audacious goal — in my induction training as a strategy consultant over 20 years ago. The concept, coined in the 1990s, has always stuck with me, but I didn’t see the enormous power of this slightly strange acronym until we formalised our BHAG at OLIO.
More importantly, I learned the even greater power of publicly declaring your BHAG. It’s a secret weapon I believe far more startups should harness.
So what is a BHAG?
At OLIO we have an enormous ambition: to have 1bn people consuming via OLIO by 2030. That’s because humanity cannot continue to ponder how to keep global warming to within 1.5C and feed a planet of 10bn people, while throwing away a third of all the food we produce and consuming as if we have 1.75 planets.
So we’ve set ourselves the BHAG of 1bn people giving away rather than throwing away their spare food and other household items; and lending and borrowing everyday household items instead of buying brand new. It’s a terrifying, but essential, BHAG.
How should you set your big hairy audacious goal?
When staring at a blank sheet of paper, it can be hard to know where to even start when setting your BHAG. I’d recommend using what I call the three M’s model.
First, your BHAG has to be directly related to your company’s core mission; second, your BHAG has to be easily measurable (it may or may not be your North Star metric); and third, your BHAG needs to be so big it feels somewhat make-believe.
Your BHAG needs to be so big it feels somewhat make-believe
The real magic lies in publicly declaring your BHAG
Once we’d agreed our BHAG we set about communicating it internally, and also externally: to our community, our partners, our investors and the media. And we reiterate our commitment to it on an almost daily basis. We’ve found this process of public declaration and reiteration to be especially powerful, because our BHAG has now become a lodestone that navigates us through challenging transitions.
For example, as we’re "crossing the chasm" from our early adopters to a more mainstream audience, this requires a significant evolution in and repositioning of OLIO. As is often the case much of the existing community is resistant to change — they love OLIO exactly how it is! However, we've found that when we position this change in the context of our BHAG it helps significantly decrease community pushback and increases buy-in instead.
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From an organisational perspective too, as we find ourselves in the messy middle — metamorphosing from being a startup to a scaleup — reminding the team of our long-term ambition provides critical reassurance that what we’re going through is an inevitable part of the scaling journey. And having a BHAG that reverberates through everything we do helps eliminate company politics, thereby enabling us to go further faster.
Your BHAG can also filter for the right investors
A BHAG can also be a powerful filter when talking to prospective investors. Stressing our BHAG early in our conversations ensures that everyone who joins the cap table is signed up to both the scale and timeframe of our ambition. The end result is truly mission-aligned patient capital that’s backing us for the long term, rather than being in just for the flip.
Manifesting your BHAG
A sign that you’ve chosen the right BHAG is that it’s terrifying and inspiring in equal measure. On the more challenging days when trying to manifest our BHAG we take inspiration from the words of the anthropologist and author Margaret Mead, who said: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” And then we get to work.