I have lost sight of the number of board meetings or executive retreats I've attended in which, sooner or later, a decision is made that the company needs a BHAG: a Big Hairy Audacious Goal which the business writer, Jim Collins, thinks characterizes great companies.

BHAGs are exciting--because they're big, hairy, and audacious. They make everyone feel that they are setting off on a great big adventure, at the end of which will be fame, fortune, and glory. They always create a terrific sense of camaraderie and dedication. At least at first.

Reality Check

But much of the time big hair audacious goals also, more slowly, lead to frustration, disillusionment, disappointment, anger, and cyncism. When the goal can't be reached, when all the employees show that they know it's futile, trust is broken. No one believes in the mission any more and every time it is referenced, distrust grows. What was intended to solidify commitment ends up destroying it.

To be fair to Jim Collins, this isn't what he meant and he can't be (entirely) blamed for the way in which his work has been misinterpreted. What's missing is realism. For big goals to be effective, however ambitious they are, they must also be achievable. A stretch--yes, a virtual impossibility--no.

I remember one company's BHAG which involved doubling revenue without adding any additional or re-allocated resources. What did that mean? It either meant the company was full of waste (which it wasn't) or that everyone was going on a forced march. Once the executives vacated the corporate retreat, everyone lost faith.

Another company I know has a BHAG that nobody in the vast company can describe without raising their eyebrows. Everybody knows it's impossible and they're torn between fear and contempt when they think about their leadership. Everyone's afraid of challenging the goal because they will look like wimps, and they're contemptuous of leaders who believe their own PR.

How to Set Big, Achievable Goals

I'm all for ambition and stretch goals. I set them for myself. But leadership isn't the same as cheerleading. Believing in something is a necessary but absolutely insufficient condition for making it come true.

So when you set out to define your next big goals, do some real work. Ask yourself: what stands in the way of the goal being achieved? What needs to be changed to reach it? Who doesn't believe we can get there? Achieving tough goals starts with tough questions.