Having read Board-level reports, from FTSE 100 companies, to charities, to Government, to tiny private businesses, I’m convinced that a huge part of the skill is reading between the lines, and seeing what isn’t there.

So here are three features of reports that really get my ”something’s not right here” antennae twitching, furiously.

Too much agreement

Finding evidence of dissent in reports – even those that have been through a Governance chain, or have been compiled by different departmental authors – can be vanishingly rare. But that doesn’t mean that everyone involved agrees with what is being put forward in the report; it just looks that way.

I mean, how often have you been involved in discussions – especially where the subject matter is hugely important – where there is complete agreement on everything? It just doesn’t happen; certainly not amongst experienced, independently-minded people. 

Yet it’s not uncommon to be presented with Board reports that give the impression that the proposition being put forward has sailed through the organisation all the way to the top, just waiting for the Board to rubber-stamp a decision that is so obviously correct.

Now it could be that the matter in question has indeed been approved of at every level in the hierarchy. In which case you might wonder if group-think has taken hold. 

Or it could be that no-one has the stomach to rock the boat and are exercising self-censorship, as an exercise in self-preservation. Which could mean the executive (or equivalent) is overbearing. 

Or it could be that self-imposed (or template-imposed) space restrictions squeeze out inconvenient material, or, or, or – there are many possible reasons, none of them particularly palatable.

So if what you are reading has been given the green light everywhere, it could be time to do something.

Everything’s going perfectly well

In a world where there are traps and challenges at every turn, it can come as a relief to read a Board report that shows everything’s going the right way: profits rising predictably; failure rates satisfyingly, consistently low; perception studies that always show us in a great light. Phew, that means the executive must be doing a great job.

Personally, I have yet to encounter any executive team, doing something stretching, that is genuinely all over everything; and large, complex organisations always have some component(s) that are misfiring. That’s just normal. 

So surely Board reports should reflect this truth, and document things that are awry; behind schedule; over budget; or disclose that once-promising avenues have turned out to be dead-ends?

In my experience, actual, deliberate misrepresentation is thankfully rare, but it cannot entirely be ruled out. More likely is that the people who write reports – especially if they have not been properly trained – just wouldn’t be human if they wanted to avoid the temptation to put everything in the best light possible. Or, more worryingly, but pretty common, were suffering from confirmation bias. Or some of the issues noted previously. 

Again, if this is the picture that’s being painted for you, it’s time to act.

Trust me. The future’s going to be wonderful

If reporting what’s happened in the past can be problematic, that’s nothing compared with forecasting the future.

I’m particularly neuralgic when “hockey stick” projections are given: not much evidence of success for a long while, then everything’s going to take off.

Neuralgia turns to outright alarm if, at the inception of the project, the executive were shy about giving estimated tracking metrics: we propose to do this much of X and then we think that much of Y will result, after so much time. 

Of course, they could be shy because they don’t want to be shown to be wrong, but then the one guarantee you can make is that all projections; all forecasts; all attempts to map the future, are bound to be out.

So if you read Board reports that promise much between now and then, but which are light on intermediate targets and the management actions (theoretically) driving them, it’s time to get worried.

What to do

Hopefully, as a reader of Board reports, you will have been around the block a few times. So I think that when you get your Board pack, its time to put on your most sceptical head and read the reports with a disbelieving slant.

Then compare what you are seeing now to the reports from elsewhere that you have read (and maybe the reports you wrote, when you were an assured and optimistic executive, with an agenda…). What’s missing?

Ask questions of the report authors. Ask to see underlying data, especially that which appears to be an outlier or otherwise exceptional. Ask around to check what reservations may be lurking inside the organisation. Become a bit of a sparring partner to the executive. Try to create an atmosphere where, as one old boss of mine put it “run to me with bad news; walk to me with good news”, so people understand that you accept problems and challenges as something to be solved collaboratively, but apparent good news is taken with a pinch of salt.

Of course, you have to exercise your good judgement at every step, and keep things in proportion. And give authors of reports the benefit of the doubt (unless proven otherwise). But that doesn’t mean you should take reports at face value, instead think of them as spurs to active enquiry.

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