Last summer, SolarAid’s Trustees agreed to the seemingly bonkers idea that the organisation should adapt a new mission: to eradicate the kerosene lamp from Africa by the end of the decade.
In management speak, this is what is known as a BHAG – pronounced bee-hag – a big, hairy, audacious goal (a term created by Jim Collins and Jerry Portas in their fabulous book, Built to Last). A good BHAG needs to feel almost impossible. So big, so hairy and so audacious that everyone instinctively gets that it isn’t going to happen through business as usual. That everyone needs to step up and be more creative and more urgent; bigger, bolder and braver. That normal rules no longer apply.
Perhaps the most famous BHAG of modern times (although the term hadn’t been coined then) was when JFK stood before a joint session of the US Congress on May 25th, 1961, and declared,”that 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.”
The USA was in a huge propaganda battle with the Soviet Union at the time. And the USA was losing because the Soviets had just been the first to put a man into space. JFK responded by setting this truly extraordinary goal. And what we now know is that the Americans achieved it just six months before the deadline JFK had set nine years earlier.
SolarAid’s BHAG requires the elimination of a technology that has been used for decades by 110 million families living in Africa. It is deeply rooted in the culture and lifestyle of those people who have no access to grid electricity. And, at the time of writing, we have 7 years, 6 months and 2 days to get rid of it.
In future articles, I will tell you more specifically why we believe we can do this and what an extraordinary impact it will have on Africa when we do (more than you could ever believe!). But for this piece, I’d like to share some general thoughts about what the BHAG means to us and how it is changing the way we work. I believe it is the most powerful management tool that I have encountered in my 25 years of working life.
Almost from day one, my management team experienced how the BHAG changed our body language and our energy levels. Overnight, our important and worthy vision, ‘a world where everyone has access to clean renewable energy’ became more focussed, more tangible and more urgent. Tomorrow, we will have one less day to achieve it. The clock is ticking.
As the Reverend Martin Luther King said, when explaining his own BHAG on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, “This is no time to engage in the… tranquilizing drug of gradualism.”
JFK’s BHAG was powerful because it had an absolute target; and a non-negotiable deadline. Unlike most promises and goals set by politicians, the whole world would know if the USA succeeded or not. The same will be true if we fail here at SolarAid. In his speech to Congress, JFK went on to say, “If we were to go only half way or reduce our sights in the face of difficulty, it would be better not to go at all.”
Wasn’t that fantastically brave of him? Can you imagine the humiliation the Americans would have suffered, in the face of Soviet laughter, if they had failed?
This points to an important quality of a good BHAG. It doesn’t work if you keep it secret. You need to shout it from the rooftops. Tell the world what you’re going to do. Be prepared to fail publicly… and thereby make sure that failure is not an option.
I’ve seen the smirks on people’s faces – old hands that have worked in this market for many years – when I tell them of our BHAG. I can almost see their hand wanting to reach out and pat me on the head; smug in their mild amusement at our little NGO’s naivety. But here’s the thing. We need those people. We need people to doubt and smirk at us. It will make us dig deeper, commit harder and work longer hours. They’re an essential component of our BHAG community!
Our BHAG has changed things here at SolarAid in extraordinary ways; sometimes in slightly spooky ways.
As well as becoming more urgent, we’ve become a lot more creative. We’ve had to start putting together plans to expand into 40 countries in the next 6 years. I’m not sure any NGO or social enterprise has ever attempted growth like this. We’re going to have to be more dynamic than pretty much any company before us, never mind NGO. We’re going to have to create new structures and approaches; marrying the best of the for-profit world with the best of the non-profit world.
Although our ambitions for our company, SunnyMoney (retailer of solar lights), are mind-bogglingly huge; what the BHAG told us straight away (yes, our BHAG speaks… more on this in a moment) was that we cannot – obviously – do it alone. We’re going to have to inspire other NGOs, companies, philanthropists and Governments (western and African) to join us. And we need to inspire the global public to help out too. Not ‘doing their bit for the environment’ but doing a lot.
There’s a great story about a visitor to NASA in the 1960s stopping and asking a cleaner in a corridor how things were going. To which that cleaner replied that he was doing great, ‘We’re landing a man on the moon, you know.’
Realising that we cannot do it alone has changed our attitude to other players in this space. Whereas before we were like most organisations; instinctively competitive and defensive of ‘our space’; now we realise that this mindset will backfire on us and prevent the BHAG happening. Now we greet news of exciting new players entering our space with relief. Phew. Hopefully they can knock a few millions customers off the target!
Our BHAG also demands humility from us. There are thousands of people who were engaged in this sector before us… or who have still never heard of us. When our BHAG has been achieved, we cannot and will not be able to accept responsibility. And yet if it is not achieved, we will totally have to accept the responsibility of failure. We are not passive passengers in this mission.
I said that our BHAG sometimes speaks to us! A very common phrase to be heard amongst my management team is, “Well what does the BHAG suggest we do here?”
Time and time again we have asked the BHAG this question and her answer has come immediately and categorically. She always points us down the more urgent, more creative, more risk-taking or more collaborative road. She’s an inspiring character to have around, our BHAG. She’s the invisible member of our management team and she makes things happen.
I said that some of the things that have happened since we agreed the BHAG have been a bit spooky. Well how about these, for starters. Within three months of agreeing our BHAG, these three things happened:
- We found out that the UN were declaring 2012, the UN Year of Sustainable Energy for All… and that very soon the whole world would be talking about our cause!
- Greg Barker, a British Government Minister in the Department of Energy and Climate Change came up with an idea – a rather brilliant idea – to give school children in Africa vouchers to help them buy solar lights; something we think would have an astonishing impact on the market. It’s not happening yet from a British Government perspective… but we’re busy touting the idea to anyone who will listen… and when we’ve actually done it once, I’m pretty sure we’ll have a model which can be aggressively repeated, one country at a time… and it won’t need us to be the replicator.
- Eight19, a company from Cambridge, England, came to us with an amazing technology that allows people to buy solar lights on a pay-as-you-go basis; a breakthrough which several other companies have now developed and which could totally change the market; bringing down the biggest consumer barrier to buying solar lights that there is.
Of course these things would have happened if we hadn’t adopted our BHAG… but I’m not sure we would have grasped their significance quite so quickly. And pursued their potential with quite the same enthusiasm.
Every day I go to work with our BHAG by my side. In my 25 years of managing projects and businesses, I have never encountered a management tool that comes near it.
In May 2012, our business SunnyMoney sold 21,208 solar lights, more than we had sold in the whole of 2011. Next year, we think we can sell a million. The BHAG sits behind this extraordinary growth. But believe me, the BHAG will not be achieved just through SunnyMoney growth… this is just one small sign of our intentions and capabilities with the BHAG beside us.
If you have got this far in my article, then thank you… and I leave you with two questions:
- When we are partying on New Years’ Eve, 2019, celebrating the achievement of our BHAG, will you be with us… and will you be proud of your contribution?
- Or if our BHAG is not your thing… then what is yours? What bonkers goal are you going to set yourself to change our world? Or to change yourself?
Whichever route you chose, good luck!
4 vital features of a good BHAG:
- Make it huge… so most people think it’s impossible!
- Make it specific.
- Give it a timetable.
- Tell the world about it.