A break in the action today is just what you need to plan for tomorrow.

So, you two aren't on the same page," I offered, in an effort to soothe the raving woman on the other end of the phone line.

"The SAME PAGE?" she shouted, "We aren't even in the same BOOK! We aren't in the same UNIVERSE! I've HAD it!

"Last year, we agreed to expand the business," she continued, barely pausing for a breath. "I wrote a business plan for growing from two trucks to four trucks. I found a great deal on service trucks, and established a relationship with a good leasing company. For months, I have been looking for a piece of commercial real estate, because we just can't continue to operate out of our home. I found a couple of properties that seem promising. And yesterday I interviewed a service plumber who really knows what she is doing.

"But now that it's time to make a move, my husband is acting as if he's hearing about these plans for the first time! He actually said, 'No need to rush into anything. More trucks, more bills and more employees? Sounds like more headaches.' Aaaaargh! Can you believe it?"

"I can believe it," I responded. "I suggest you call a Time Out."

She sighed, and continued in a smaller voice, "You're right. How can I stay married to a man to a man who is so out of touch ?"

"No! That's not what I mean," I interrupted, instantly aware of how difficult it can be to communicate. "I mean a Time Out from the business. How about taking a day to re-group? Schedule a retreat. Take some time to get on the same page with your husband about the company. Then, renewed, refreshed and reunited, you can move forward."

How About You? Are you committed to a plan of action, but your partner isn't buying it? He (or she) may say he is in agreement with your direction, but his actions say something else. Perhaps you've agreed to make the switch to flat rate pricing, but you notice he never touches the flat rate book when he does a service call.

It's time for a Time Out. Big companies call this Strategic Planning. Small Shops rarely do this, which is one of the reasons small companies stay small, even when the owners want the company to grow.

Now I'm not suggesting that you have to become a big company. I am suggesting that you discover what you do want, and make sure that all the big cheeses in your company (i.e., the owners, managers) are in agreement and in communication about where you are going and how you are going to get there.

Here are some ideas for structuring your Small Shop's Strategic Planning meeting. It's time for a Time Out!

First let's go over the logistics. Who takes the Time Out? In a Small Shop, all the owners definitely should attend. The managers, perhaps. If the owners are at odds with each other, they should hammer things out before dragging the employees into it.

Plan on spending at least a day. What? Pick a day and stick to it.

Also, hold the Time Out anywhere but your office. Book a hotel room. Or check with your local library. I bet they have a meeting room that you can use. Have refreshments available all day long, but no alcohol. You want to maintain clear thinking, and steady blood sugar levels.

As with any meeting (but especially this one) type up and hand out the agenda a few days in advance. Start and end the meeting on time. Also, throughout the day, you'll be making decisions and creating to-do's. Make sure someone writes it all down.

The Agenda

There are no hard and fast rules here. Use this agenda as it is, or feel free to "plus" it. The idea is to spend the day thinking about the big picture, and making decisions about your life and your company:

  • The Perfect Day Exercise. Have everyone in the meeting think about the PERFECT day. How would you spend the perfect day? With whom? Where? What would you eat? When? Where? What would you wear? What would you do? Work may or may not be a part of this day. Have everyone write down his or her own thoughts. You can share your thoughts with the others, or keep them private.

  • The Perfect Company Exercise. Now, describe on paper the PERFECT company. What does it look like? What do you do there? How do people dress? What do you say when you answer the phone? How much money do you make? How much in sales? Is it a plumbing company? Or a hydronic heating specialty business? Or, in your perfect world, is it something altogether different?

  • Find common ground. As you share thoughts about the Perfect Company, can you find areas in which you are in agreement? On a flip chart, or dry erase board, describe a company you can all get behind. Answer these questions - What do we do? Why? For whom? By whom? How? How much? Just how does the Perfect Company fit in with the Perfect Day? Ideally, the Perfect Day and the Perfect Company complement each other.

  • Create a Mission Statement. In one sentence, can you describe the core mission of the company? The fewer the words, the grander the scope of your mission. The ultimate test for a good mission statement is: Does it inspire you?

  • Assess your current situation. How does the current state of the company compare with the ideal scene? Note the areas of deficiency, as well as the areas where the current situation matches the Perfect Company.

  • Set goals. List five to 15 goals that will move you closer to the ideal scene. Are you in agreement on these goals? Narrow the list to the few goals you can get behind 100 percent.

  • Create the Organizational Chart. Map out the organizational chart for your company. Most importantly, decide who is in charge. Be honest, and be realistic.

    This can get sensitive. Sometimes the reason there is an impasse or a lack of direction is because there is a power struggle going on. Often the power struggle and the conflict are the result of a third person pitting two people against one another. The Time Out is a place to address this.

  • Problem solve. What are the obstacles that may get in the way of achieving your goals? Here is a simple problem-solving model: Identify the problem. Intend to solve the problem. Analyze it. Think about it, and discuss it. Generate possible solutions. Select a solution. Implement the solution. Follow up. Pick a date in the future to assess the effectiveness of your solution.

  • Who does what when? Assemble a list of action items that will move you closer to your goals. Assign a name and date due for each action item.

  • Wrap it up. End the meeting at the predetermined time. With 15 minutes to go, wind things down. Recap the day and the action items. Congratulate yourselves on your honorable, high-level work!

    Note the flow of the day. You are moving from ideal to real. First, you agree on the ideal scene. Next, you assess your current situation. Then, you decide on a plan of action that will move you from where you are to where you want to be.

    Here's advice on how to do that:

    • Choose your words carefully. Jim Olsztynski taught me that few people are skilled at using accurate words to describe their thoughts and feelings. We tend to bring out the big guns when a fly swatter will do. Choose your words carefully, and don't overreact to another's poor choice of words.

    • Choose your battles. The only way to live life without compromise is to live alone. Even then, you may have to make concessions to the physical universe. Some things are worth dying for. Some things are worth fighting for. Some things are just not that critical. Go to the wall on anything that threatens to compromise your integrity or core values. Otherwise, there's room to move. Does it matter, really, if the uniform pants are black or navy?

    • Keep the big picture in focus. As long as the picture is clear, and the intent is firm, the individual steps are not so critical. Break big goals into baby steps. (Think of Bill Murray in "What About Bob?") You can and will make mistakes as you move forward.
    This is a pretty hefty agenda. You could get through it in a day. You might need to schedule more time. You may choose to take a Time Out once a quarter. The important thing is to consider the focus and direction of your life, and how the company fits into that bigger picture. Take a Time Out as necessary.

    You may choose to take a permanent Time Out. I don't care if you are the 16th consecutive generation in your family-run business. If the business doesn't serve your life, it's time to move on. If your company is in conflict with your Perfect Day, well, I suggest you find or create a new company.

    Sometimes, you have to be willing to lose everything to gain anything.