Mediahuis uses Big Hairy Audacious Goals to inspire media teams

Matthijs van de Peppel

NRC Media

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

Xavier van Leeuwe

Mediahuis Nederland

Amsterdam, The Netherlands

We have written extensively about different ways to motivate teams and individuals because we know great people (A-players) who are highly motivated make all the difference to the success of a company. It’s not technology; it’s the people that matter. Because the feeling of ownership and being able to make a difference matter, at Mediahuis we have developed several ways to involve people in creating department strategies.

Another way to do this is by formulating Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGs) with your team.

Setting challenging goals may require rethinking the way a company approaches its work.
Setting challenging goals may require rethinking the way a company approaches its work.

The concept of a BHAG was introduced by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in their book Built to Last. The best-known example of a BHAG was pronounced by U.S. President John F. Kennedy, who said on May 25, 1961, “This nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to Earth.”

It was a bold commitment. At the time, the most optimistic estimates were that there was a 50% chance of it succeeding. We now know that eight years later, on July 20, 1969, Neil Armstrong became the first man on the moon.

Other examples of BHAGs were made by Ford, which democratised the automobile; Microsoft, which committed to a computer on every desk and in every home; Google, which set out to organise the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful); and, closer to home, KPN, where we are becoming the most customer-friendly company in the Netherlands.

A BHAG has a number of properties:

  • It is logically linked to what your organisation does, what you are good at, and what you find important.
  • It’s challenging, exciting, and outside the comfort zone.
  • It is clearly defined, immediately appealing, and sincere.
  • It is feasible but not within existing frameworks. It requires a different mindset.

The BHAG can only be reached if you think and work differently. It requires an enormous effort, and you always need a smattering of luck. Beware, though, because totally unattainable goals do not motivate people.

There are four types of BHAGs:

  1. Measurable: These BHAGs focus on a specific measurement. For example, they measure market share or the turnover or number of customers. Such an objective has the advantage in that it is very specific. But its disadvantage is that it is “cold” and has little regard for context. An example is the the goal set by The New York Times to reach 10 million subscribers by 2025.
  2. Common enemy: This is when you set yourself up against a major competitor and fight a threat from the outside. That’s what the sports brand Nike says: Crush Adidas. This can lead to a somewhat aggressive culture.
  3. Role model: In contrast to the competitive BHAG above, this BHAG draws inspiration from larger competitors. For example, Watkins-Johnson has stated it wants to become as respected in 20 years as Hewlett-Packard is today.
  4. Internal change: This describes a goal for organisational transformation. For example, Marck hopes to “transform this company from a chemical manufacturer into one of the preeminent drug-making companies in the world.”

Formulating BHAGs aims to inspire, motivate, and guide a group of people. These kinds of goals can be set at any level, for a department, company, or even a country.

Leaders use them to set an institution in motion, but it is also possible to create BHAGs from the bottom up. At NRC, we went through a process in which the marketing and service departments in mixed teams formulated BHAGs in specific sub-areas, such as data, customer experience, employee experience, and sales.

The four work groups set a long-term goal, determined corresponding measurable goals, and worked out a roadmap to reach them. They presented their ideas to the management. We didn’t know any other company that had formulated BHAGs in this way, so it was a journey for us as well.

The results were surprising.

First, the employees of the departments got to know each other better and spent time sharing thoughts about the common goals of their departments. This turned out to be a very powerful way of connecting employees.

Second, the formulated goals originated from the group of employees themselves and, as such, have their support.

Third, it made sure employees stepped outside the daily grind. They were literally asked to think bigger. On the one hand, this led to understanding the work of other departments. On the other hand, it also sometimes resulted in ideas that were too unrealistic. Halfway through the final outcome, that was pretty damn good.

Finally, the BHAGs that were formulated are appealing and inspiring. Together, the four groups have arrived at one overarching BHAG: Reach 500,000 subscribers by 2030.

Such a BHAG roadmap has its obligations. People can get very excited about their ideas and the grand goal. At the same time, they just have to do their daily work the next day and the BHAGs can be quickly dusted in a corner like the fantasies of yet another brainstorm. When that happens, it’s counterproductive and demotivating.

To prevent this from happening, you have to be sincere and open-minded as a leader to be persuaded by the ideas, and be prepared from the start to make far-reaching changes when need be. And that chance is great: One of the characteristics of BHAGs is that they fall outside the current frameworks. To realise such goals, the frameworks — and therefore the organisation — will have to be adjusted.

This is also the case with NRC’s BHAG. We realised this goal was probably unattainable within our working methods at that time and with the current portfolio. It led to an adjustment within the team and even wider within the organisation to better facilitate us in our search for new ways and products to attract subscribers, in addition to all the roads we were already pursuing.

A growing number of companies also know how to motivate employees with an external objective, not only ensuring the company does no harm, but raising the ambition and actively “doing the right thing.” Forerunners such as Nike, IKEA, DSM, and Tesla put several of the 17 sustainable development goals of the United Nations on the agenda.

Nike states, “Any business doing business today has two simple options: embrace sustainability as a core part of your growth strategy or eventually stop growing.” At Mediahuis we have actively started to improve our social and ecological impact, as well as the well-being and vitality of our employees.

These kinds of goals can inspire employees even more, because a purpose is stronger when it has impact on the whole world, and not only on the company that you work for.

This blog series is based on the book The Human Touch, in which Xavier van Leeuwe and Matthijs van de Peppel share their experiences as media executives in turbulent times. They deftly applied smart data and technology, but the quantum leap lay elsewhere: in the connections between people, within and beyond their companies.

About Xavier van Leeuwe & Matthijs van de Peppel

By continuing to browse or by clicking “ACCEPT,” you agree to the storing of cookies on your device to enhance your site experience. To learn more about how we use cookies, please see our privacy policy.