Brevity in Board papers is good. But sometimes Board papers are too short and consequently mislead the reader. 

Whether accidentally, or in an attempt at concealment or improper influence (through omission, misrepresentation, or sophistry), it’s a serious matter and may constitute a corporate governance risk, as Non Executive Directors need a degree of detail if they are to properly interrogate the thinking behind a document.

Why does it happen? Occasionally it is a deliberate attempt to put a gloss on matters or promote a particular course of action, through the omission of bad news or the suppression of dissent. 

Sometimes the human urge to put your best foot forwards results in over-optimistic introductions to documents, which take up too much space, resulting in self-censorship of detail to make up the space later on.

But in my experience, its most often the inability to write “short”; guidelines on document production becoming ossified; misuse of templates; misuse of PowerPoint; and imprecision of language, that are the culprits for poorly-drafted Board papers (although flaws in the commissioning of documents also plays a role).

How do you know when something is too short to give you a full picture? It’s when you find yourself reading between the lines as much as reading the text, or when your experience tell you something’s not quite right – the picture painted is too bland or the sub-text of the document seems to be ‘nothing to see here, move along.’ 

Often there will be an absence of hard KPI’s (particularly interim KPI’s on a lengthy project) and an abundance of imprecise language – e.g. “…the project is broadly on track…”,  “…a small number of matters were noted as requiring improvement…”, etc.

In order to flush out problems with slender documents, it’s sometimes helpful to read them with a sceptical, as opposed to an enquiring mindset, as that often throws their shortcomings into relief. And it never hurts to ask yourself what’s missing from the document; and how does the document compare with similar papers written elsewhere that you have come across. Spotting what appears to be absent can give you a helpful line of enquiry…

But all this investigating is frustrating as well as time consuming. The difficult bit of a Board pack is supposed to be working out what to do with the matters presented, not trying to work out what the papers mean. Reading the Board papers shouldn’t be like reading the tea leaves, after all; their meaning only becoming clear the more you stare.

How to prevent the problem is partly culture, partly training. 

It may be worth revisiting your firm’s guidelines, to check they are up-to-date and that the deadlines shown allow the Secretariat enough time to review and reject material that’s not up to scratch. Requiring sub-standard papers to be redone is never popular, but it’s important if a culture of creating quality Board documents is to be cemented.

Equally, it’s essential to ensure that all who write Board (and Committee) papers are aware of changes to guidelines and templates (sounds obvious, but some firms rely on individuals checking an intranet from time to time, to see if there have been updates. Needless to say, this doesn’t work); understand the rationale behind the guidelines; and – ahem – give them practical, high quality training in how to write excellent papers, fast.

Some specific thoughts to consider for your guidelines:

  • It might be worth insisting that papers include measurable KPI’s for all stages of projects – especially nebulous, hockey stick shaped ones, where the payoff is comfortably far off (such as is often the case with branding and marketing-related projects). This is difficult, as it requires management to be explicit about the links they believe exist between their actions and the outcomes and that can be problematic. However, the way to deal with that problem is not to duck interim KPI’s, but to refine them as more information becomes available throughout the life of the project.
  • It might be worth stressing that templates are a guide and not immutable rules. Templates never cover all eventualities and shoehorning a document into an ill-fitting one is a guaranteed way to make the document unsatisfactory. Secretariat should be able to give advice to those who feel their paper doesn’t fit the templates.
  • Training in, and inculcating the use of, so-called Pyramidal thinking at the planning stage of Board papers, is the fastest way to significantly improve their quality and speed of production, so it might be worth including this in the production guidelines.
  • Insist on clear, precise language in Board papers. 

So, short Board papers are better than lengthy ones, but both have the power to mislead, and its important to stay on top of their commissioning and production, to help the Board produce its highest quality thinking.

As always, there’s much to do and time is short, so good luck and get cracking.