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February 19, 2013

National Veterans Strategy as Big Hairy Audacious Goal

National Veterans Strategy as Big Hairy Audacious Goal

Written By: James Schmeling, IVMF Managing Director and Co-founder

James Collins and Jerry Porras in their classic book Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies (HarperBusiness, 1994) gave us the term “Big Hairy Audacious Goal” (BHAG), which represents an idea so big and bold that it drives results.

In a contemporaneous Inc. Magazine article, Collins said we should “create BHAGs so clear, compelling, and imaginative that they fuel progress.” As recently as November 2012, Collins said “…because it’s so big and so audacious and so hairy it increases the sense of urgency…the only way you can achieve something that big is an absolutely obsessed, monomaniacal, overwhelming intensity and focus.”

With our newly released report, A National Veterans Strategy: The Economic, Social and Security Imperative, the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) and the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism (INSCT) at Syracuse University call on government to do just that—create a Big Hairy Audacious Goal—to lay out for the first time a whole-of-government strategy for veterans that aligns whole-of-nation efforts. This is a BHAG that engages the broadest base of stakeholders; establishes a single point of authority and responsibility; crafts and maintains a National Veterans Strategy; engages advisors to provide real and compelling strategic advice and counsel to the president, Congress and agencies; continues to review, assess and set new BHAGs; and that engages all of the veteran-serving organizations, philanthropic associations and other private sector stakeholders collaboratively, aligning resources of government, corporate, foundation and community partners in support of veterans and their families.

The goal of creating a National Veterans Strategy demands immediate action. We must work on it with intensity and focus for the next decade, or more. We must ensure that it lives on to serve all veterans now and in the future.

Our veterans and our nation need this today. Calling for a broad examination of everything done everywhere by government and the private sector, setting such a BHAG may be threatening for some—the private sector, the independent or philanthropic sector, media, and others. It requires us to ask who should be involved in veteran policy and practice, why we care for our veterans and families, who we are serving, with what recognition or benefits, provided by who, and what can we afford (and conversely what we must do).

Asking those difficult questions, and creating those responses, may cause creative destruction—some programs, services, organizations or agencies may be displaced or changed significantly by a national strategy that rationalizes who best does what, and where, with what resources. But it also recognizes the progress made in the last decade, by agencies, organizations, and individuals. It may draw on those lessons to build the future framework and build the foundation and the strategy we need.

It may be that disruptive innovation will be the driving force for determining the scope and direction of much of the change. Private sector initiatives may disrupt government services and demonstration and pilot programs in communities may provide better ways to serve veterans. New approaches to organize governance may be driven by ground up approaches happening at the individual service branch level, in Warrior Transition Units, in Transition Assistance Program demonstrations, and in other initiatives.

A recent Harvard Business Review Blog Network column – part of a collaboration between HBR and The Bridgespan Group, “Scaling Social Impact” – encouraged non-profit organizations to set ambitious but achievable goals. Our BHAG, a National Veterans Strategy, is achievable. It is a big goal, as in Bill Shore’s accounting in the HBR blog of his organization adopting the goal of ending childhood hunger. Shore shares that many people in the anti-hunger community were opposed to setting the goal and the strategy, that it was too hard, unachievable, and perhaps too specific. Perhaps we are promoting a goal that was too hard to achieve, or may be (inaccurately) perceived to point fingers of blame at existing initiatives, programs, communities, and agencies. Perhaps the report may be seen as simply another document pointing out overlap and inefficiencies, uninformed about the reality of the scope we address.

To be perfectly clear—while our report cites budget imperatives, and discusses overlap and inefficiency—reducing the budget and increasing coordination are not the primary goals of our work, but a foundational assumption of the reality on the ground, that this cannot continue. Importantly, our goal with this report is not to orchestrate specific changes, or to address specific issues (despite our extensive work in many of these areas). Many others have done this well, including the Center for a New American Security with Upholding the Promise: A Strategy for Veterans and Military Personnel,” and the Center for American Progress with their recent President Obama’s Commitment to Veterans Must Remain a Second-Term Priority.” Each focuses on specifics, and those specifics must be part of the dialogue to come.

Our goal, rather, is stimulating the dialogue, setting the Big Hairy Audacious Goal of not only creating a National Veterans Strategy, but of calling for the most impactful, most effective ways of benefitting not only our veterans and their families, but the nation as a whole. We call for aligning this BHAG of creating a National Veterans Strategy with the nation’s goals overall, building on what veterans have already done—serving and defending our nation—so that they, AND our nation, gain the full benefit of their service. We will thereby enable our nation to become stronger, better, and more competitive. Our citizens will continue to improve their opportunities and standard of living, and we will build a stronger and better economy inclusive of our veterans and their families just as we did after World War II, with similar results. It’s a specific, achievable, long-term, Big Hairy Audacious Goal that we can achieve if we start now, and work tirelessly to see accomplished.

Our report, authored by Nicholas J. Armstrong, M.P.A., Ph.D. Candidate (INSCT) and Dr. J. Michael Haynie, Ph.D. (IVMF) with contributing authors Daniel Savage, M.P.P. (IVMF); James Schmeling, J.D. (IVMF); William Banks, J.D., M.A. (INSCT); and VADM (Ret.) Robert Murrett, M.A. (INSCT), is available at I also encourage you to visit the National Veterans Strategy page on our website.

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