Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Halve the $1.3 trillion United States Deficit in Four Years? Now That's a BHAG!

We refused to leave the problems of our common welfare to the winds of chance and the hurricanes of disaster.

---Franklin Delano Roosevelt (FDR)

I have frequently encouraged leaders to adopt “Big Hairy Audacious Goals” (BHAGS). Otherwise called stretch goals, they set a challenging line of sight for everyone in an organization, harnessing and focusing energy. I picked up the strategic thinking concept almost 15 years ago from James Collins and Jerry’s Porras’s Built to Last research. After listening to Barack Obama’s special joint meeting of Congress last evening, I came away astounded by his boldness and ambition for the United States. When I heard his goal around the deficit-reduction, it was as if James and Jerry had been talking to him.

Barack Obama’s pledge to cut the United States $1.3 trillion deficit in half by the end of his first White House term made me gasp. Now I really know what a BHAG is! I cannot even fathom how he will do it. Neither can the pundits who are generally laudatory about his big dreams, confidence, decisiveness, inspiration and his “walking the talk”---openness, transparency and accountability. But when people shake their heads and conclude it can’t be done, that’s likely the time to sit up and take notice.

Collins and Porras said that BHAGs should “reach out and grab you in the gut”. They should be “tangible, energizing and focused”. And, above all else people should “get it right away with little or no explanation”. Well, I can attest to “grabbing me in the gut”! We “get it” and the goal definitely fits the other criteria. At the same time, this is a “shock and awe” strategy. Not your typical war gambit. Given the massiveness of the debt and the structural weaknesses underlying the problem, this has caught our attention, as I gather a BHAG is meant to.

For those who like data, these BHAGs no doubt make you nervous. “How does Obama ‘know’ that he will do this”, you might ask? Well, he doesn’t. Although, we can assume he has undertaken some serious number-crunching with his very bright advisors and staff.

Big goals and visions are characterized by one key quality: there is no proof they will happen. As Joel Barker pointed out in one of his videos in the 90s, pioneers made the data. They created the results by rolling up their sleeves and venturing out into the wilderness, the frontiers where they had never been before.

So, it is with the Obama administration’s deficit reducing BHAG. George’s Bush’s Iraq war might seem the same. The irony however is that President Bush failed to pay close enough attention to the data before initiating the war in Iraq and while he oversaw the unfolding story. It was only in 2007 that Bush changed course with a surge of troops and a paradigm shift in strategy: setting up platoons in every neighbourhood of Baghdad to work jointly with the people. That strategy appears to have had positive results albeit after much carnage and heartache.

In this instance, because Obama attests to “learning as he goes” as did Lincoln, FDR and many other great leaders, he will likely adapt his strategy (the "how" of getting there) frequently because of an openness to the unfolding story. As a consequence, the probability of success---finding the path forward that “works”---is much more likely.

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