How to create goals for the future when you don’t know what the future looks like

Jim Collins (uber guru and author of Built to Last, Good to Great, How the Mighty Fall and Great by Choice) has brought us many strategic concepts.

One of his most popular is the Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG), which companies set as the goal for some faraway date – commonly 10 years – and then strive to achieve.

Defining the BHAG is often a task set for the management team to work on at one of their strategic planning days. Often it’s kicked off with a sentence that goes something along the lines of, “Imagine it’s 10 years from now, what would you be most proud of the business having achieved?”

But when the facilitator asks that question most faces in the room go completely blank. 10 years? Eh?

Let’s be honest, for most of us the changes and events of the last 10 years have been a bit of a surprise. So when we are asked, seemingly, to predict the next 10 years, we feel woefully inadequate. And speechless.

So I think the best way to start a session like this is with a bit of fun.

When I was in kinder, my teacher got us to paint postage stamps for the year 2000 (yep, showing my age!). I remember the delight we had imagining what the year would be like. My stamps were full on pictures of Mars, Saturn and spaceships and me living on a space station eating weird food.

Yes, my predictions were a little off. But that didn’t matter, because the point of the exercise was to think about what could be, and I never forgot it.

You can do a similar thing with your team. Spend an hour or so having fun talking about what life and business might be like in 10 years time. Most SMEs don’t employ futurists, so it will be guesswork and intuition but, importantly, it will get the brain working and the imagination flowing.

You can do some prep beforehand by searching out interesting predictions and circulating them to the team. Don’t confine this to stuff about your industry – this exercise will work much better if it’s about how we live and what we do. You want to get your team feeling like they are in the future (10 years older!) and they will find it easier to do if they start by thinking about stuff that means something to them.

Once you’ve done this, your team should feel ready to dream a bit and be inspired about what the future could bring for the business. That’s just the right state for the brain to be in to start thinking about the BHAG. That’s when you kick the real work off and start drawing a picture of the future.

Julia Bickerstaff‘s expertise is in helping businesses grow profitably. She runs two businesses: Butterfly Coaching, a small advisory firm with a unique approach to assisting SMEs with profitable growth; and The Business Bakery, which helps kitchen table tycoons build their best businesses. Julia is the author of How to Bake a Business and was a partner at Deloitte. She is a chartered accountant and has an economics degree from The London School of Economics (London University).

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