Big, Hairy, Audacious Problems

In the 18 years since James Collins and Jerry Porras coined the phrase Big Hairy Audacious Goal most people instantly recognize BHAG as that thing that sets the vision for the organization. BHAG’s are very helpful at keeping companies focused on the long term. They give context to strategic plans and help companies weed through strategies until they find the ones that align with the big picture. They inspire and guide at the same time. In many ways they are the starting point for developing a plan and the ending point when you reset the vision.

Goals are important to the planning process and a big, hairy, audacious one can serve companies well. But along the way you may encounter problems or roadblocks that are just as big, just as hairy, and just as audacious. When that happens you may find that it is best to put the quarterly plan aside (you do have a list of priorities for the quarter don’t you?) and just focus all the effort on overcoming the problem. This post is about recognizing BHAP’s and how to put the plan on hold while you work to solve them.

How do you know when you are up against a BHAP? How do you know you aren’t just experiencing a run of the mill roadblock? This is important. Every team runs into problems that have to be solved. Troubleshooting is one of the central tasks of managers. Leadership teams in smaller companies must get good at diagnosing and remedying all sorts of operational challenges. Any company executing an intentional growth plan should expect to encounter workflow bottlenecks and impediments to growth. When these normal challenges arise they are typically delegated to a team member or operations unit to solve. Many times a manager will run up against a problem and the issue never makes it to the leadership team because the manager feels like it is their problem to solve. And most of the time this works just fine. Not every problem requires the resources and focused efforts of the team.

But BHAP’s are not like ordinary road blocks. They do require attention and resources from the whole team. The easiest way to examine a BHAP is with an example. There once was a team that had developed a cross selling strategy. This strategy required the company to adopt a new CRM system. The implementation of this system was delegated to the finance and accounting department because they had the most experience getting new software platforms up and running. The install and conversion of existing data went smoothly enough, but adoption of the new system was painfully slow. Week after week the manager continued to deliver disappointing and frustrating project updates. Finally, the whole team decided to help the controller take a closer look at what was holding things up.

What no one anticipated was that the new CRM’s user interface would require minor tweaks to the workflow processes of almost every department. These were not big changes, but management had done a great job over the years standardizing processes and building a very efficient machine. In fact, they had done such a good job standardizing processes that standardization and documentation had become part of the company culture. In their highly regulated industry this had even come to be viewed as a competitive advantage. This view was reinforced each time they acquired a smaller competitor. Newly acquired employees would see immediate productivity, sales and efficiency gains as they adopted the standardized processes of their new employer.

But this culture was a double edged sword. Now the employees were being asked to use a system that didn’t exactly match up with the standardization they had embraced for years. When the management team recognized they were facing a BHAP they decided to suspend all of the other projects tied to the strategic plan. At this point they were about 3 weeks away from the quarter end and only two weeks away from their planning meeting for the next quarter. Not only were they going to miss the implementation targets for this quarter, it looked like they were in jeopardy of starting the next quarter way behind schedule. But they didn’t panic. They proactively decided that addressing the BHAP should be their top priority for the next 16 weeks and that other elements of the plan could wait until they had resolved the CRM and workflow problem.

It was a good thing they set aside so much time because it took about 16 weeks to solve the problem. Every manager went back to their team and painstakingly documented every place where the new CRM user interface departed from the previously documented standards. They then asked the question, “do the standards need to change or does the user interface need to change.” By the end of the next quarter they not only had 100% adoption of the new CRM, they had business processes that were much stronger than the industry leading practices they were already using.

If you find that a team member is struggling with an area of the strategic plan you need to consider whether the company might be running up against a BHAP. In my experience any project that gets more than 4–6 weeks behind is a BHAP candidate. And even small problems can become BHAP’s. We have all experienced the runaway project with the outrageously blown budget. When any team member starts to feel overwhelmed consider marshaling the resources of the group. Call the calvary, declare a BHAP and focus everyone on solving the problem so the plan can get back on track. Suspending your strategic plan for a quarter or two could be the smartest thing you do all year.

Also recognized that addressing BHAP’s is not like working your normal strategic plan. A BHAP has become Big, Hairy and Audacious for a reason. You need to treat it seriously. I recommend that teams facing a BHAP set aside a space for their BHAP war room. I also push teams to set aside a second daily huddle for the managers or team members working most directly to solve the BHAP. This is important for two reason. The first is practical. Every big problem represents a big opportunity. If the team is paying attention it will uncover some new knowledge that stands to have great value for the company. Dedicating a separate space and meeting time to the BHAP guarantees that there will be a place to capture, organize and later (once the BHAP is solved) analyze this information for the future good of the company. It is often times the leadership team that takes over the BHAP war room after things have settled down to debrief the troubleshooting team and draw conclusions from the new data. Picture the generals and CIA spooks picking over the remains of an overrun enemy stronghold. What you do with the aftermath of a BHAP campaign can be more valuable than solving the original problem.

In the example above the team discovered that some of the process and standardization issues that had been causing them headaches were caused by the enhanced capabilities of the new CRM’s back end. Their original systems were designed around flat file databases. The new CRM was relational and allowed for the creation of ad-hoc datasets by even front line users. The team that came in to perform the BHAP “autopsy” recommended that the next year’s strategic plan consider how restructuring their backend database could provide a competitive advantage.

The second reason it is important to declare war on BHAP’s and to set aside space and time for it is behavioral. BHAP’s have been pestering the managers involved with them for weeks or months. They have become 800 pound gorilla’s that get heavier and meaner every day. To those in the thick of it they appear insurmountable. When the BHAP team decides to start attacking the problem in very different, very tangible ways it helps the people who have been struggling since day one to find their own personal reset button. They rejoin the fight to solve the problem with renewed morale and a fresh outlook. This might sound trivial, but it is not. Teams will almost always find that the breakthrough comes form someone who has been working on the project since the beginning. The shakeup, the war room, the new faces and the renewed energy give your front line problem solvers a new outlook that usually works to shake loose a solution no one could see before.

BHAP’s are a pain in neck, but unless you are running into them you can’t be sure that the progress you are making is meaningful. Don’t get discouraged and don’t be afraid to set aside your strategic plan for a few months while you tackle the problem. Mix things up and resist the urge to just throw more people at the problem using the same methods that haven’t worked. Setup a war room. Convene a separate daily huddle. Give the front line people a day off before the big launch and tell them you need a fresh look at the problem. And when it’s solved, throw a party. Your team will deserve it.