All too often, board and committee meetings and leadership retreats feel more like a yearly visit to the dentist: No one really wants to go, the experience can be painful, and participants are frequently relieved when it's over. All of which undermine the retreat's original goals: time in a relaxing setting, the development of plans without constant distractions, and the strengthening of team relationships.

The culprits are the Seven Deadly Sins of small meetings. If you recognize and counter these demons with solutions for facilitating productive and energizing meetings, you can make your meeting valuable.

Lost in the ‘60s

Without a predetermined objective, participants come with their own agendas or none at all. Without a destination, the meeting goes nowhere.

Solution: Prioritize and determine the retreat's key objectives. During the months prior to the event, keep a list of what you want to accomplish, in order of most- to least-important, realizing that it may change. Set a date for announcing the objectives.

Eyes Are Bigger Than the Stomach

Too often, the plan is to try to do too much. Discussions wind up being short-circuited.

Solution: Reduce unrealistic expectations. Choose one to three objectives that can be thoroughly discussed in the time allotted. Allow ample time for determining the next steps and establishing an action timeline.

I Can't See Clearly Now

When your team isn't sure why it's showing up, some participants may shut down.

Solution: Communicate the topics, objectives, and goals of the retreat well in advance so that participants can come prepared for total involvement, with lively discussion and reasoned debate. Even if your retreat is for brainstorming, it will be more productive if your participants have brainstormed in advance.

Boss as Facilitator

With the boss as lead dog, participants tend to follow along and offer what they think is the “right” answer, rather than the best answer.

Solution: Bring in an experienced facilitator. Having someone with an outside perspective lead the group and ask hard questions makes it more likely that the team will delve deeper into discussions and come up with fresh ideas. But even with a facilitator, heed this caveat: The more the boss talks, the less everyone else will.

The Boss Assumes Too Much

Participants often carry their uncharted pecking orders and office-politics baggage to retreats.

Solution: Work with an objective third party to develop a pre-retreat survey that gives participants an equal voice, assures that all ideas are aired, and identifies what participants see as key issues and what they hope will come out of the meeting. With the survey results, the retreat can be customized to deal with real issues.

Peacekeeping Instead of Resolving

Fireworks typically fly among the more dynamic personalities who are firmly committed to their own ideas. The leader typically does not want to embarrass star performers, so he or she puts on the peacekeeping beret. Compromises seem to have been struck on key issues; everyone thinks decisions have been made, only to wonder later what they were.

Solution: Go into the meeting hoping for those fireworks. It's a sign of passion and creative energy. One method a facilitator might employ in this scenario is to discuss the topic with the leader and another top person prior to the retreat. The game plan: Each person takes an opposite position. At the retreat, each leader states his or her “rehearsed” position to begin the discussion, and then asks each of the others to weigh in.

Organizational Memory Loss

The deadliest sin of retreats is no follow-up. Bottom line: The organization missed out on growth opportunities and sent a deflationary message to participants.

Solution: The end of the retreat is really a beginning. A successful retreat serves as a medium that produces concepts, teambuilding, innovation, new programs, and growth. Before the retreat ends, state the next steps clearly, assign projects, and determine the follow-up timetable. Establish a communication plan for posting the progress of initiatives.