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Bold Goals, Audacious Goals

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“The tragedy of life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream. It is not a disgrace not to reach the stars, but it is a disgrace to have no stars to reach for. Not failure, but low aim, is a sin.” — Benjamin Mays

By Tom Peterson

In 2012 Dr. Bill Foege was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s civilian highest honor. He is not as well known as some of the others awarded at the White House on that April day — Bob Dylan, Madeleine Albright, John Glenn, Toni Morrison. But he has arguably helped save more lives than any living person. Among other things, he has headed The Carter Presidential Center and directed the CDC. He now advises the Gates Foundation on health initiatives. I got to know him when he served on the board of directors of Seeds, a magazine I edited in the 1980s.

In the early1980s UNICEF director James Grant approached Foege with a proposition: UNICEF and the World Health Organization may be able to get beyond their turf wars if a third party, Foege, would chair a Task Force for Child Survival. This campaign would help the world’s children on an unprecedented scale. At that time, millions of children where dying each year when there were low-cost ways to save them. Foege agreed. Having already led in the eradication if smallpox—a remarkable feat—he was now signing on to an even greater challenge.

What’s a Big Hairy Audacious Goal?

What Bill Foege had agreed to was yet another Big Hairy Audacious Goal. In Built to Last Jim Collins and Jerry Porras describe their conclusions from six years researching the question: what makes companies exceptional? One finding was that most of the visionary companies they examined had “bold missions,” or Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAGS, pronounced bee-hags). “All companies have goals,” they say. “But there is a difference between merely having a goal and becoming committed to a huge, daunting challenge—like a big mountain to climb.”

A true BHAG is clear and compelling, serves as unifying focal point of effort, and acts as a clear catalyst for team spirit. It has a clear finish line, so the organization can know when it has achieved the goal; people like to shoot for finish lines. —Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in Built to Last

It’s “clear, compelling, and people ‘get it’ right away,” says Jim Collins in Good to Great. “A BHAG serves as a unifying focal point of effort, galvanizing people and creating team spirit as people strive toward a finish line.” But there’s a difference between a good and a bad BHAG, he says: A bad one is set with bravado while a good one is set with understanding. A good BHAG for a business, says Collins, will be found in that intersection between three questions:

    • What are you deeply passionate about?
    • What can you be best in the world at?
    • What drives your economic engine?

Bold goals address a great challenge

Audacious goals aren’t bold for their own sake. They need to solve an authentic challenge, serve a greater purpose. Explorers often had focused bold goals: Columbus wanted to reach India by sea, Magellan wanted to circumnavigate the world, Lewis & Clark explored the American northwest as they made their way to the Pacific. Audacious engineering goals include connecting the east and west with a transcontinental railroad, digging a 50-mile canal across Panama to cut shipping between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans by nearly 8,000 miles. Henry Ford sought to make an automobile the average person could afford.

Sometimes a movement’s bold goals culminate in specific legislation: ending slavery (1865), women’s suffrage (1920), the end of child labor (1938 and other years), civil rights (1964), equal pay for equal work (pending).

The Child Survival Campaign

In 1980, 15 million children under the age of five died a year—that’s 40,000 every day. Most of these deaths were preventable. The goal of the Child Survival Campaign was simple (and audacious): cut the number of child deaths by half. And do it within five to 15 years, using low-cost technologies and new social mobilization practices. Reaching the goal meant 7 million children would be saved each year.

bold goal, audacious goal BHAGLaunched in 1982, the campaign focused on four approaches: tracking an infant’s monthly weight on a growth chart so a mother will know if she or he is not growing properly; oral rehydration therapy, a simple mixture of salt, sugar and water that can save the life of a child with diarrhea; the promotion of breast feeding; and immunizations against the basic childhood diseases.

The campaign engaged every U.N. agency, every government in the world, faith-based communities, civic clubs (Rotarians donated hundreds of millions of dollars for polio eradication, for example), and virtually every sector of society. It showed what a unified global effort could accomplish.

Dramatic progress in limited time

I interviewed James Grant in his New York UNCIEF office in 1988. “We first postulated the Child Survival Campaign in the summer of 1980,” he told me. “We talked about he possibility for a child survival and development revolution. What we meant by the word revolution was not violent turmoil, but dramatic progress within a limited period of years, progress you would normally expect to take much longer. An analogy would be the Green Revolution of the late 1960s and the early 1970s when a series of countries managed to double their wheat and rice production. This would have taken 20 to 40 years to accomplish.”

When we launched the Child Survival Revolution, it was like launching a missile into space. Was it going to take off? And it did. In the first month it received support, beginning with he Secretary-General of the United Nations but also encompassing people as different as Margaret Thatcher, Rajiv Gandhi and Olaf Palme. This brought us a very satisfying feeling.

Tremendous satisfaction also came after the initiatives in Colombia, the first country to apply these social mobilization concepts in this form…. Salvadorans discovered that more of their children had died in 1984 from not being immunized than the total killed or injured in the country’s war. The society convinced itself that the least it could do is lay down its arms to shoot its children with vaccines three times a year. And they did this in 1985, 1986, 1987 and 1988. This example has been picked up in Lebanon, in Uganda and several other parts of the world.

“The immunization front has taken off most spectacularly,” Grant told me. “Immunization levels have risen from less than 10 percent in 1980 to well over 50 percent today.” This was a remarkable achievement in just eight years.

Focus on a singular target

bold goalsWhen James Grant died in 1995 he didn’t see his goal fully reached. But he’d seen the trajectory the campaign was on. By 1990 the number of child deaths had dropped from 15 million to 12 million. By 2011 it had dropped below 7 million. It took a bit longer than the visionaries Grant and Foege had hoped but the bold goal of cutting child deaths in half was reached. This is doubly impressive, as the global population grew from over 4 billion in 1980 to 7 billion in 2011. So there were billions more children to protect.

The global effort was successful because it had one goal that was understood and believed in. And it was supported by many subgoals, and sub-subgoals. You may worry that having such a defined goal thwarts creativity. But having this singular target in no way stopped the technical and social innovations needed to save the children. It just focused them. Innovation on the technology ramped up as the various hurdles appeared. And each country each region had its own challenges that had to be addressed uniquely. But the power was in the fact that everyone was working toward the same thing, cutting the number of child deaths by half.

Reflecting on the campaign in 2014, Bill Foege said that they found that from the beginning “it’s important to define what is success. What’s the last mile? When will you know that you’ve achieved it? Then people sign on for a definite end, rather than signing on because they’re interested in a project.”

Bold Goals Related Links

You Can Do the Impossible

An Ambitious Goal will Transform the World (and Yourself) 



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