Make No Little Plans or What I Learned at Northwestern University

I recently attended a business event at Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law, co-hosted by AGA (Accelerated Growth Advisors). The meeting was based on the “Make No Little Plans” quote accredited to Daniel Burnham. Burnham was the lead architect for the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago, was a master urban planner, and designed over 500 buildings, many of which are considered to be architectural wonders still today.

The panel discussion featured numerous innovative and influential Chicago business leaders from organizations like RXBAR, Madison Dearborn Partners, Farmer’s Fridge, Driehaus Private Equity, and Northwestern’s Pritzker School of Law (CEOs, CFOs, Venture Capitalists, etc.). Here’s a highlight of my take-aways from the day:

  1. We must have zero tolerance when it comes to compromising your core mission issue (education, quality, life safety, etc.) and knowingly unethical behavior. Having people on your team who compromise on these issues is like knowing you have cancer and doing nothing about it.
  2. You must listen to your “customer” to gain trust and understand what they want/ Be willing to test and be deliberate. If you’re listening, your customers will tell you how to change your product/service to stay relevant into the future.
  3. Partner with someone or organization that has “muscle” in areas where you don’t.
  4. Success comes from a blend of research/data and gut – trust your intuition, and “when there is doubt, there is no doubt”.
  5. Know where you will land before you jump. Anticipate areas of risk and have plans in place ready to respond. If risking, are you putting the legacy of the organization at stake?
  6. For Millennials – There’s great value in learning (policy, finance, HR, systems, etc.) from being inside a large organization before taking the entrepreneurial leap.
  7. Lastly, your leadership team must be filled with people that are “helping you succeed”, and allowing no one that will “let you fail.” Do deep assessment and be relentless to assure that you have the right talent on your leadership team. The team that got you to point “A” may not be the same people who can get you to point “B”.

The full quote attributed to Burnham is “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 sons and grandsons are going to do things that would stagger us. Let your watchword be order and your beacon beauty”. Pretty inspiring, yes!

So, go make some big plans. It will change the ending of your story to one that is more powerful, meaningful and filled with hope.


This blog shares perspectives on how you have the ability to create new story endings that are meaningful, powerful and filled with hope. I facilitate culture changing processes that help organizations achieve greater impact. Also, I provide leadership coaching to help executives and aspiring leaders become the fullest expression of who they’re intended to be.

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