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Are Your Plans Too Small?

My firm is getting ready to move to a new building.  Ever since the firm's inception, we have been located in this downtown Cincinnati building designed by Daniel Burnham. One of the most famous architects of his day, Burnham designed Chicago's first skyscrapers, the Chicago World's Fair property, and the miles of Chicago lakefront parks. He brought forward and expanded the design for Washington DC's mall. He was instrumental in placement of the Lincoln Memorial. He designed the center of Cleveland, Ohio. He conceptualized an entire city in the Philippines. Working with his clients and constituents, Burnham saw attractive city environments as a way for residents to experience uplift, self-respect, and confidence. He was a bold thinker and a bold planner.

Burnham's famous remark about planning displays his boldness:

Make no little plans. They have no magic to stir men’s blood, and probably themselves will not be realized. Make big plans. Aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will never die, but long after we are gone will be a living thing, asserting itself with ever-growing insistency. Remember that our children and grandchildren are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty.

In significant ways, Burnham's field of urban planning is like a family's work of planning for its future.  Any time you start planning for yourself, your family, or your business - and certainly any time you do this for any type of family enterprise - you confront the question: how high do we want to set our sights? Are we fearful of aiming high? Are we worried about what aiming high could require of us? Do we wonder, deep down, whether we simply won't be able to do it? How will we handle the complexity? How will we handle what we own? Or worst of all, will we simply run out of time? 

So here's a Burnham question: Are your plans for yourself, your family, and your business pointed toward a bigger future or a smaller one? Have you consigned yourself to little plans? Do your plans remain hazy, uncommunicated, or unrealized - because they are too small?

Some people fear big plans because they suspect the plans lack humility. Some object that big plans destroy simplicity. Others object to big plans as being imposed from outside. And still others fear they don't have the ability to plan effectively. 

Almost always, these reactions are excuses.  

Some of the biggest-minded planners I know have the greatest humility. They plan not because they think they are smarter than everyone else, but because they have enough self-confidence to realize they have something to offer, something that's needed.

Successful big plans are simple at their core. When Daniel Burnham designed the Chicago World's Fair grounds, he was dealing with dozens of buildings, hundreds of acres, and 20,000 workers. But at bottom, the concept behind the project was simple. That's why his company was able to bring it from start to finish in just 38 months.

Honest plans are proposed, not imposed. Burnham was known for working very closely with his clients. He wanted to elicit their opinions. He himself referred to his "diagrams" (his company's architectural and landscape drawings) as living, not static, things. You plan because you want to make the most of what you have to contribute. Your contributions are a step along the line, not the end of the line. They are what precede the contributions of your children and your grandchildren.

Lastly, the fear of inability is the biggest misconception of all. Burnham failed entrance exams to two Ivy League schools. His business partner was a better draftsman. The Chicago lakefront in winter was a windy wasteland. But Burnham was a comprehensive thinker, and he realized toiling alone in his shortcomings made no sense. He lined up collaborating architects, he hired the best design staff, he bored in on what his clients thought. He found people who complemented what he was good at.

Daniel Burnham was a practical visionary. He didn't dodge the question "why." As he wrote, in planning the first question is: "Why do we need to plan at all?"  

In our field, my answer to you is: because you have something worth planning for. You have yourself, your family, your enterprise, your contributions, the people who come after you. The simple answer is: because you're worth it.

Put the pedal down and go for it.