Canadians aren’t unified behind a clear energy-environment-economy goal, but we could be

Maybe Canada needs Jim Collins to help us get a grip on energy policy.

Here’s why.

Most folks who have been in a corporate retreat know these four letters: BHAG.

They stand for Big Hairy Audacious Goal.

Popularized in the business bestseller realm by Collins, BHAGs are intended to help companies and organizations set stretch goals that may on the surface may seem “out there” but on close scrutiny are actually achievable with the right combination of resources and market dynamics.

BHAGs are not aspirations for this year, or next, or even five years out. They stretch across decades and even generations. And people have had BHAGs for centuries. Collins simply put a catchy name to the notion of setting a big target and doing everything in your power to get there.

Collins says it well in Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies:

"A true BHAG is clear and compelling, serves as a 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."

The first key to a BHAG is first and foremost in its believability. The second key is the clear pathway to it. The third key is its unifying effect.

In Canada, our various provincial and federal governments like BHAGs. They make for good political theatre. But, it seems, most politicians don’t really grasp the work that goes with them. In a corporate context, BHAGS are the blend of economic pragmatism and ideal vision-setting. But cast in a political context, BHAGs are often more or less ideological freight trains thundering into a future with no guarantee the BHAG locomotive will stay on any recognizable economic tracks.

Here’s why the energy policy BHAG currently preoccupying our federal government is flawed: Think about what you know, as a Canadian taxpayer, about BHAGs related to the emissions reductions goals, for example, to which various governments have committed the country in the international realm. Think Paris Accord et al.

Those goals are big, hairy and yes, audacious in terms of their aspirational laudability. We all love the environment and we understand we need to do better by it. So far, so good. But those goals are not underpinned with anything average Canadians would recognize as the understandable business logic that will help us navigate there. In other words, to have a plan that balances the economy and environment, via a clearly articulated strategy that makes both political and business sense. Yes, those words can fit into the same sentence.

Indeed, Canada’s emissions reductions aspirations are but one element in an incredibly complex economic and energy transition set of processes that if not understood by everyone — in the “organization” that is Canada — end up not being a goal at all, but rather something that at best, disappoints and at worst, divides. This covers the gamut from regulatory uncertainty to unintended economic consequences.

We’ve seen plenty of evidence of that division already in this country; there is nothing concretely happening — beyond anodyne political blandishments — that remotely resembles alignment across the necessary constituencies that would be party to producing a BHAG that Canadians could get behind, knowing that both the economy and environment are foregrounded in some form of plan that manages the obvious tensions between the two. It’s within such a plan that key policies on dynamics like carbon pricing can be held in clear view; in a way that a price on carbon is tied clearly to economic levers and triggers that balance Canada’s key resource interests and its aspiration as a global environmental lever.

Back to the quote. It’s worth rereading.

"A true BHAG is clear and compelling, serves as a 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."

Right now, there is no clear finish line visible to anyone but the small group of ideologues who have effectively commandeered the bus. Where we’re headed in Canada in terms of energy policy is hardly unifying or catalyzing as a country.

In a 2012 interview with Inc. magazine, Collins makes a key point about leadership. It’s important, he argued, to get people behind the actual BHAG to make it come to pass, rather than behind the temporal leader of the moment. That produces durability, he contended.

In Canada, we need as a citizenry to get behind a twinned environmental-economic BHAG and move beyond what is passing for political leadership these days.

Someone should check if Collins has an up-to-date passport and is up for a visit to Canada.

Bill Whitelaw is Managing Director, Strategy & Business Development at geoLOGIC Systems Ltd. & JWN Energy. Bill is a director on many industry sector boards including the Canadian Society for Unconventional Resources and the Canadian Petroleum Hall of Fame. He speaks frequently on the subjects of social licence, innovation and technology, and energy supply networks.

Dear user, please be aware that we use cookies to help users navigate our website content and to help us understand how we can improve the user experience. If you have ideas for how we can improve our services, we’d love to hear from you. Click here to email us. By continuing to browse you agree to our use of cookies. Please see our Privacy & Cookie Usage Policy to learn more.