Call it a hometown kick, but lately I've found a lot of inspiration in all things Chicago. Even in a tough economy, the Windy City is poised to take the reins as the next Silicon Valley. And its past shows me how planning big, along with playing big, nets big results.
Take this quote from Daniel Burnham, the city planner largely responsible for Chicago's 20th century growth and very successful 1893 World's Fair:
Make no little plans; they have no magic to stir men's blood and probably will themselves not be realized. Make big plans; aim high in hope and work, remembering that a noble, logical diagram once recorded will not die.
Big ideas are what push people in motion. Put a man on the moon. Connect 500 million people across the globe on one website. Run payroll in 2 minutes a pay period — my own humble offering. So start 2011 thinking about your big ideas — ones that stir men's blood and include the noble, logical diagram.
I think Burnham is right that your plan won't die, but developing the big idea is only half the battle. Once you plan big, you have to play big. You can find countless examples of entrepreneurs who play and win big on the New York Times Bestseller List, but you really don't have to look any farther than The Shawshank Redemption.
Andy Dufresne, the main character, has what every small business owner who wants to play big needs: hope and tenacity. The combination is essential.
Andy is committed to improving the Shawshank prison library. He writes a letter every week to the Maine legislature asking for funding. After a few years with no replies, he receives a few boxes of donations and a check for a couple hundred dollars. Mission accomplished, right? No. If you're looking to play big, here's where hope and tenacity pay off.
Andy increases his writing campaign to twice a week. After a few more years, he receives enough money and donations to build one of the biggest prison libraries in the nation. He never let anything deter him from mailing his letter every week — or twice a week. Playing big means making a firm decision that other projects will not interfere with your big goal.
So how can you start planning and playing big? Think of one big thing you'd like to focus on in 2011. Maybe it's a few smaller things that coalesce into something big. Either way, you should be able to articulate it in a simple sentence.
Once you've settled upon it, devote one hour every day to nothing but working on your big plan — maybe that means 'forgetting' your BlackBerry in the other room and going offline. The novelist Jonathan Franzen modified his writing laptop by removing the wireless card and superglueing a small piece of plastic inside his Ethernet port, making his computer physically incapable of connecting to the Internet. Maybe that's a little much, but the fruit of his labor, Freedom, is a top-seller that earned him a Time magazine cover.
Create a timeframe for when your goal will become a reality. Burnham had until May 1893 to prepare for the World's Fair. President Kennedy gave the nation until the end of the '60s to land on the moon, and we did it with five months to spare. Monitor your progress weekly to keep in check with your goal time.
Sometimes, though, plans change. There's a fine line between persistence and hubris. For all the examples I've listed of people who played to win, many end up playing to lose. If your evaluation shows things aren't lining up like you need them to — or the goal you wanted six months ago doesn't reflect how things have changed — stop. Don't quit, instead pivot. Revise your plans to reflect new learnings that will help you meet your goal.
Like Andy, your hope and tenacity are the foundation of how playing big helps you win big. And you have the advantage of pursing your dreams without being behind bars.
MICHAEL ALTER is president of SurePayroll, America’s leading online payroll service. He received an MBA from the Harvard Business School and holds a bachelor's degree in economics from Northwestern University. @michaelalter