Goalsetting Smackdown: Big Hairy Audacious vs Baby Steps

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Picture this, your 20 year reunion is coming up and looking to made a huge impression…but you you’re feeling a bit, um, huge. Truth is, you’ve needed to lose about 100 pounds for years, but now there’s a reason and a target date.  The event is 6 months away, so it’s doable but extremely aggressive.

Question is, what do you focus on in order to maximize the likelihood of success?

Two major approaches offer radically different advice.

Goal Setting By Focusing on a Massive Change

First, there’s the mega-goal approach. Made famous in business by Built to Last author, James C. Collins, who believed the greatest companies all had what he termed “big, hairy, audacious goals” or BHAGs. Other expressions come in the form of classic saying like, “if you shoot for the stars, but land on the moon, that’s still pretty impressive.” Or, it’s gotta be worth the effort.

The idea behind this approach is the notion that grand visions have exponentially more power than little, more mundane goals. Achieving great things takes sustained, often tireless and unpleasant work over an extended period of time. It takes being able to surmount hurdles, roadblocks, emotional crashes, outside judgments and waves of self-doubt. And that level of effort can’t be sustained by anything other than the prospect of complete and utter world domination, fame, glory or some other benchmark of success on a massive scale.

Following this approach, if you wanted to lose weight, we’d tell you to focus on that 6 month vision, visualize what you’ll look and feel like when you lose the 100 pounds. Create a detailed picture of what it will allow you to do, how it will change your life, what it will mean on a visceral, emotional and physical level. Describe the drop-jaws, hush-talk and looks of awe on each person as you stride into the reunion looking and feeling like the god or goddess you were always meant to be.

No doubt, there’s a lot of power in the this approach. In fact, it tends to be the way I pursue my lifestyle adventures and passion-driven quests.

Goalsetting by Focusing on Baby Steps

But, there’s another approach that’s got it’s own rally cry and a pretty good argument to boot. It’s called The Kaizen Way after it’s major promoter and it suggests doing the exact opposite of the BHAG/shoot for the moon approach.

Kaizen says that when you shoot for the moon, you are bound to fail. The reason offered is that the average person looks at a goal that would bring massive change and instead of becoming motivated…shuts down. They become so overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge that lies before them, they end up immediately focusing on how unlikely they’ll ever be to pull it off. This leads to a cascade of negative emotion, self-talk and a dramtic increase in the likelihood that you’ll abandon your grand vision shortly into your quest.

The solution then, according to Kaizen, it’s to chunk it down to the tiniest, most psychologically doable steps and focus on one step and only only step at a time. I have to admit, there’s a certain elegance and sensibility to this approach and the theory behind it as well.

And, the Winner Is…

Damned if I know!

Yeah, I know this is the place where I’m supposed to resolve the battle and declare a winner. But, honestly, there’s a lot of truth to both. And, I wonder if it’s more a matter of figuring out which is a better match for your temprement. I know, for me, baby steps don’t work. I need to see the big ring. And, truth be told, I need also know there’s substantial gratification built into the process, too.

So, I’m curious…what do you think? What’s been your experience?

Do BHAGs work better for you or baby steps?

Let’s discuss…

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40 responses

40 responses to “Goalsetting Smackdown: Big Hairy Audacious vs Baby Steps”

  1. Sean Sweeney says:

    For me its DEFINITELY small goals that lead to the big goal! I look at a big goal like “start my own real estate company” and start the negative self-talk and tell myself it’s impossible. But if I set the goal of “talking to one broker a day this week” it inspires me and I think “I can do that!” Or even better, even smaller goal like, “Spend 10 minutes today calling 1 broker.” That seems extremely doable! The catch with this method is that your small steps have to be strategically planned out so that they lead to your big goal. Not a bunch of small steps that spin you in circles. Thanks for posing the question!

  2. Paul Peixoto says:

    I think your closing comments answer the question. I like to think that change comes by small steps and large leaps. Whichever is suitable to the goal will be the ideal approach. Some goals are being accomplished in the background, they’re not on the forefront of your mind each day – small steps work well here. Goals that are in the foreground can often be achieved by capitalizing on intense periods of motivation – large leaps work good here.

    I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer.

  3. Pat McAnally says:

    Good puzzle but why does it have to have only one way to solve it? I think the method depends on the project. I have personal experience with BHAGs — a visionary venture with a big goal and great payoff. And that is great. And I have also completely restored and hot-rodded 3 cars with my husband. And if you don’t choose the Kaizen method you will never finish the project once you have completely disassembled the car and there are parts EVERYWHERE. Those projects are like eating an elephant and demand one step at a time. So perhaps the conclusion is when choosing a goal-setting method, let the tool fit the project.

  4. Alex says:

    I think it comes down to being driven by a larger vision, but not losing site of the things that need to get done today that support that mission. The problem with small goals is that without the bigger picture in mind, there are things you need to do today in order to achieve the big goals of tomorrow. So I would give weight to the smaller goals, because I think that keeps you in action-oriented thinking and allows you to adapt to changing dynamics.

  5. Lani P says:

    What’s always worked for me is the “Go Big, or Go Home!” mindset. And I have found that indeed when you aim for the moon you end up falling in the stars (if in fact you do fall). And that’s not a bad place to be. 🙂 Somehow, having this mindset has always caused me to strive and achieve excellence (so they say) in my accomplishments. And there’s not been an endeavor I’ve pursued that I did not eventually realize – physical therapist, helicopter pilot, police officer… stuff like that among other things. So I can honestly say my outlook has worked for me.

    By the same token, I’ve also had to incorporate the “baby steps” mentality when actually “strategizing” the action plan. The baby steps keep me propelling forward toward the mark, while the big picture “going big” keeps my motivation so strong that my ability to accomplish things quickly, efficiently and effectively kicks in with – as you said – “exponentially more power”.

    But in the end, I do think it does in fact depend on one’s temperament/personality/belief systems etc. as to which goal-setting method they will utilize most.

    Super question, Jonathan. And BTW – LOVED your book! 🙂

  6. Tim says:

    I would have to agree with Sean at the top. For me breaking down my big goals into small pieces is the way to go. I’ve got a few BHAD in my head, but I’m going to have to break it down to get some progress or else I’ll put these goals too far off into the future.

    We can easily do this in a journal, a notebook or a Blackberry. But I picked up a pack of goal planning sheets for my (old school) Franklin Covey planner.

  7. Ceres says:

    I take both approaches at the same time. The BHAGs serve as the anchor and remind me of the direction I am heading/need to go. To get there, taking smaller steps is equivalent to my compass. Concentrating on the small steps allows me to better navigate around the obstacles that come my way during the journey.

  8. Joe Jacobi says:

    BHAGs are definitely a huge motivator for me – hang the vision out there and a be a game-changer. But as I was reading this, one part of Career Renegade jumped out to me – it’s the part about family support.

    If you’re looking to achieve something special and you’re going into this with spouse/partner/strong family position, I wouldn’t want to freak out my main support system. Just a good idea to talk things out, which by the way are will help you get to your destination whichever method you choose.

  9. Dan Kooper says:

    Why not combine them both? Thats what I always do.

    Shoot for the stars, and take baby steps to get there.

    I like to set my goals very high, and then visualize all the steps that I need to take to get there, and then knock them out one by one.

  10. Sean says:

    The winner is Both!
    In my experience if I continually keep my eyes on the big prize/goal down the road then I end up tripping over my feet! On the other hand, if I look down only at my feet and the small steps I will miss the goal completely and run my head in to a wall!
    First set you goals and regularly review them to keep yourself motivated. Then focus on the process and enjoy that for it’s own worth on your journey. This is the middle way of personal achievement zen!

  11. I think the most important is to be able to aply both. I mean, if you don’t know the point you wanna arrive, you can’t take your babysteps towards that direction.

  12. We seem to agree: you have to have both.

    I have the fortunate circumstance that my life partner and business partner, my wife, is excellent at sorting out and accomplishing the baby steps necessary to achieve my wildly unrealistic dreams (which keep turning, instead, into fairly achievable goals, once she’s got ahold of ’em.)

  13. I often feel like I’m a baby stepper trapped in a BHAG world. As a believer/practitioner/teacher of kaizen, I have great appreciation for just how much lasting change can be accomplished through small actions. Large goals often seem to me to be black and white – either achieve the goal to great acclaim or fail miserably. With small steps, even if I fail, the failure is manageable, making the process about learning and growth along the way. Success, then, is less a ‘sugar high’ and more of a deeper, more complex sweetness.

  14. Jonathan Fields says:

    So it’s pretty interesting, a lot of folks point to a blended approach or adopting the one that’s right for a particular task. I wonder, though, whether the main proponents of each method see them as co-mingle-able or even acknowledge the validity or power of the other approach.

    For me, whether it’s been in business, sports or life, I tend to be most motivated by the big, bad suckers and believe that I can achieve them, no matter what anyone else says.

    But, there’s also an interesting interplay with my recent post that contrasted the power of visualizing the outcome versus the process (check it out again) that would seem to suggest there’s greater power in the steps.

    Still dunno, but it’s a fascinating inquiry

  15. David says:

    Jonathan, terrific blog subject.

    I think Sean’s comment is right on – I think it depends very much on the individual – the how can/do I process it.
    My perspective is the BHAG…the destination…what it is I really want. However; to use a baseball analogy, you can’t cross home plate without touching first, second and third base. So, even with a BHAG – a plan or subset goals/milestones are a much too.

  16. […] here:  Goalsetting Smackdown: Big Hairy Audacious vs Baby Steps Share and […]

  17. I would say both approaches for tackling a project are important, yet I place more value on focused attention. We should follow our natural rhythms in the process. If we are driven then we should ride that wave and jump in with 100% focus (as much as time allows) maximizing the momentum. When our motivation wanes (thankfully it is in the doing that the motivation is found), we are overwhelmed or if find that our schedule is particularly busy, pressing forward with baby steps will carry us forward for the season.


    symphonic fantasy music composer and digital artist

  18. […] well but it is definitely a step in the right direction.  Read the blog and see what you think. Goal Setting Smackdown- Big Hairy Audacious vs. Baby Steps- Do you keep your eye on the prize at all times?  Or do you […]

  19. […] post:  Goalsetting Smackdown: Big Hairy Audacious vs Baby Steps | Awake … This entry is filed under Goal Setting, business. You can follow any responses to this entry […]

  20. company says:

    ? Wie fühle ich mich, wenn ich mein Ziel erreicht habe? Coachingfrage Zielsetzung Goalsetting

  21. Why choose?

    Sure, you need to have an idea about where you’re heading, but it can’t ALL be about the end point.

    What’s the point in going hell for leather towards a goal if you’re miserable doing it?

    For me, the main thing is to get into something that has a personal relevance; to get into a game that matters because I want to win and simply because I want to play.

    Whether it’s a tiny step or big leap is a question of timing – but as long as you’re in the game and playing it because it matters you’re onto something.

  22. Elliot Susel says:

    What you’re describing reminds me of the two major components of the “Path-Goal” theory of leadership. I’m no expert on this theory, but the way it was explained to me is as follows:

    If you provide your followers with a clear vision (BHAG, as you call it), and a clear series of actions that lead to that vision (baby steps), you will dramatically increase your follower’s chance of success*. In this case the theory would be applied to personal leadership and motivation.

    In summary, a combination of big vision and baby steps are helpful in achieving BIG. Set a big vision and set clear/meaningful milestones that make the task manageable. This is a great example of a situation in which you can combine both approaches for an even better result.

    *A quick wikipedia search indicates that I’m referring to the “directive path-goal clarifying leader behavior” subset of the path-goal theory.

  23. Mouli says:

    I think I am going to echo what a lot of people have already commented. I think it is a combination of both. You need to set your lofty goals, which will drive your inner self. You also need to set your short term goals (daily/weekly/monthly/whatever you are comfortable with). But you just need to be careful about one thing. Your short term goals should be (or most of them should be) aligned with your long term goals. They need not be exactly leading to … they should be aligned. Like Steve Jobs once said, you should be able to join the dots later !

  24. I personally think the kaizen way is more a way of doing things…a way of life and a way of living. It’s not a principle for goal setting.

    Goal setting should be HUGE. Always aim further than what you can achieve. That way, even if you fall short, you still hit your mark.

    But kaizen is very useful to help people get started. Dream big, yes. But start small.

    Like Jonathan said, baby steps…


  25. I’d go for audacious end result, baby steps goals to achieve that. Oh and yes, Kaizen is the way. 😉

  26. riva says:

    I’m a little late into this conversation, but I’m in agreement with the baby Kaizen steps lead to big change.
    Did anyone already mention that Kaizen actually originated in the US? MacArthur brought it to Japan after the war to rebuild. Great book: One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way.
    I learned about it when I got my Kaizen Muse Creativity Coaching certification, and now use it to do the dishes, the laundry, just about everything that I have any little resistance to.

  27. riva says:

    PS. I would argue that even BHG need to be accomplished with smaller steps. You can’t do a sink full of dishes. You can only wash one dish at a time. Even if you put them all in the dishwasher. You’ve got to load it one item at a time.

  28. Rob says:

    Hmm… Great question… Truth is (for me) it depends on whether its purely SELF-related goals or goals for a group. When its me alone (and I *do* have 100 pounds or more to lose) I do better with baby steps, I’m definitely the “shut down at the prospect” type of person. In fact, reading this and thinking about my weight made me want chips — and I realized that was my mental reaction to shutting down… so this has been good to read.

    But, when I’ve started businesses before and had employees and investors to keep happy, the BHAG’s were really what drove me… we shot for the stars and hit the moon, which indeed wasn’t bad at all.

  29. Rudolf says:

    Great subject Jonathan & great discussion guys! I agree with Sean, Tim, Gustavo, Ceres, Joel,…basically with most of you people. It is possible to make both approaches work together. It just takes some calibration & experimenting. We are all different and there is no universal approach to this. I make things happen through baby steps, my big “WHY?” – source of motivation comes from BHAGs. This approach works for me if I have only one or two BHAGs at a time to maintain sharp focus.

  30. I follow mixed creative visualization, where I visualize the baby steps as well as Big Hairy Audacious goals. I jotted down my experiences at http://zencontrol.net/2009/06/creative-visualization-basics/

    Naresh K Singh

  31. Peter says:

    There is a technique in Solution Focused Therapy named Scaling Questions where you create a scale from 1 to 10 and, after analysis, you focus on the things that will get you to the very next step.

    10 might be something big but the things you need to do to get from 4 to 5 might not be so scary. 🙂

  32. Enrique S says:

    The “small bites” approach has usually worked for me, as it allows you to break down a huge task into smaller, more manageable ones. I’ve used this approach to rid myself of my caffeine dependency (down to one cup a day). But I’ve used the other approach when I felt motivated enough that nothing could deter me, most recently with my diet and exercise program. I find the small bites approach works better when I’m not 100% committed.

  33. […] at Awake at the Wheel discusses the benefits of big hairy audacious goalsetting.  I’m more inclined to use the “baby steps” method, which allows me to break […]

  34. Justin says:

    I found setting too big of a goal is disheartening, but by focusing on smaller goals, I never had any drive to reach an ultimate goal. Now I set a list of tasks, but head a group of tasks with the project they are associated so I not only see my to-do’s depleting, but I see the project filling out towards completion. I keep other ideas for a v2 if necessary, but work on making a finished product instead of revising it to death along the way.

  35. […] First, there’s the mega-goal approach. Made famous in business by Built to Last author, James C. Collins, who believed the greatest companies all had what he termed “big, hairy, audacious goals” or BHAGs. Other expressions come in the form of classic saying like, “if you shoot for the stars, but land on the moon, that’s still pretty impressive.” Or, it’s gotta be worth the effort. Read more in Goalsetting Smackdown: Big Hairy Audacious vs Baby Steps […]

  36. On some projects I even tend to take bigger steps since making smaller steps would just take too long. Pretty hard to describe though.

  37. Ruri says:

    In my opinion, those goal setting plan cannot be split. To be successful we should think the end result. What target we want to. After we keep the target cut it into small.

    To make it easier, in business ask this, What is the target for next 10 years? What is the target for the next 5 years? What is the target for 1 year? What target for next month?

    Every business should have this to make sure they are on the right track of business plan.

    To make it much simple, ask this..How to eat elephant? The answer is eat it one by one.

  38. Both are methods of effective goal setting and as long as we have direction we will be ahead of those who do not.

  39. Jake says:

    Great debate! A majority of the comments suggest these aren’t mutually exclusive. Without the bhag the little steps spin in circles, and without the little steps the bhag gets overwhelming (and may cause lunacy!).