How the QDI Principle can help you write better board packs

Board & management papers

8 min read

Why do we need better board packs?

Board packs matter. They are among the most important documents a business produces, providing the raw material for its highest-level discussions about its biggest issues.

But they rarely hit the mark. We’ve reviewed thousands of board packs over the past 15 years, and directors and governance professionals often complain that they’re so full of noise it’s almost impossible to find the vital signals in them. It’s like picking up a whisper next to a busy street.

Don’t just take our word for it though. Over the past five years we’ve conducted research with the Chartered Governance Institute UK & Ireland and found that only 28% of directors believe their board papers help them have focused and productive conversations. For 30%, the board pack is a hindrance.

What’s more, the problem’s getting worse. The average board pack is now 22% longer than it was in 2019. At well over 200 pages, this means six to seven hours’ solid reading time. And eight in ten board members now describe their board materials as “weak” or “poor”, up from just over 50% in 2020.

Poor board packs make it hard for directors to have informed conversations that move the needle, challenge management, or make decisions. And the impact is felt far beyond the boardroom. When they don’t have the right tools for the job, boards can’t provide the scrutiny and guidance that shareholders expect and stakeholders deserve — risking the company’s short-term performance and its long-term survival.

Where are board packs going wrong?

Report writers aren’t lazy or asleep at the wheel. They’re poorly equipped, which means they write the wrong way about the wrong things.

Most board papers get stuck in the weeds or look in the wrong direction. Our research found that 69% of board members and governance professionals think that their board papers are too operational and not strategic enough. For 61% of respondents, board reports are too introspective. And 48% say they’re too backwards-looking.

Vital insights are also buried deep, making them near impossible to find. Sixty-six percent of respondents compare finding the key messages in their board papers to finding needles in a haystack — and this is up by a third since 2019. This is no coincidence, with board packs getting longer.

What’s the solution?

The good news is that every organisation can deliver a high-impact board pack, and improve the performance of its board, by adopting the QDI Principle.

The QDI Principle is Board Intelligence’s methodology for thinking and writing. It’s based on our work with the boards and leadership teams of over 3,000 organisations, from government departments to the Fortune Global 500, over the past two decades.

When applied to board and management reporting, it turns three capabilities into habits and injects all three into the boardroom:

  1. Critical thinking — asking the questions that help you extract breakthrough insights and craft robust plans.
  2. Great communication — sharing messages with clarity and impact to mobilise others to action.
  3. Focus on what matters — aligning thinking and action around the problems and opportunities that matter most.

When board papers are full of sharp thinking that’s communicated well and focused on what matters, they give directors a vital tool that’s too often missing from their toolkit — and stimulate well-informed and action-oriented discussions about the organisation’s most pressing issues.

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How can the QDI Principle help you write better board papers?

1. Critical thinking

Great board papers don’t just contain information, they’re stacked with breakthrough insights and potentially game-changing ideas. To surface them, you need to ask the right questions — and lots of them.

The right questions are the simple but tough ones. The ones that might feel uncomfortable at times, but which quickly get you to the crux of what matters. How are we performing? Why? What are the implications? What are we doing about it? Where does this leave us?

The right questions will also spark other questions, helping us pursue a logical train of thought and avoid leaving gaps in our thinking or muddling our answers. Why have we chosen that option over others? What resources do we need? What do we need to do next to progress? What are the risks and how are we mitigating them?

Writers should ask themselves these questions when thinking about what to write in their report, and then structure the report around them. This means that the questions act as the headings and sub-headings under which the detail is laid out.

This makes it easier for management to lay out their thinking and make sure they’ve covered all the bases. When it’s mapped out in front of you, you can more easily spot the gaps and fill them.

It also gives board directors confidence that management are thinking things through and that they’re on top of their brief. When they dive into the details, they will see that management has left no stone unturned in the pursuit of insight, offering a balance of good and bad news, internal and external perspectives, and of backward- and forward-looking information.

And they will see management taking a position on what’s happening and showing judgement. They’ll see management considering what to include and what to leave out and drawing meaning from the information they’re sharing — so they don’t deluge the board with information for information’s sake.

2. Communication

You need to rally people around your thinking if you want them to act on it. Effective board reports share insights clearly and impactfully, making sure great thinking travels to where it’s needed.

Step one is making sure that readers understand the key messages and overarching narrative quickly. There isn’t time to wait until page 20 to get to the point, particularly for non-executive directors whose contact time with the business is limited. Strong executive summaries pack enough punch that a reader could still meaningfully contribute to a board conversation, even if that’s all they looked at.

Step two is making papers easy to read and the content easy to follow. Explain ideas as simply and concisely as possible, using plain language, not jargon. Edit text ruthlessly — if there’s something confusing or ambiguous, reword; if it’s superfluous, cut. When it comes to using data to tell the story, clearly label charts and use them to deliver a single message. Keep fonts, formats, and terminology consistent across papers.

Step three is remembering to write like a human. Don’t just tell people ‘sales are down 34% and the business will respond accordingly’, tell them how that makes you feel and what you are going to do about it. Using the first-person active voice forces you to take accountability for what’s happening and helps others to engage with what you’re saying. Neo-bank Monzo has a memorable tip to help you spot passive language — add “by monkeys” to the end of your sentence. If your sentence still makes sense, it’s passive.

3. Focus

The organisation’s reason for being should be obvious to anyone reading the board pack. And it should be crystal clear what big-picture goals the business is focusing its time, skills, and resources on.

There are two ways to achieve this. The first is to make sure that every paper offers some context for the reader. Why are we writing this paper, and why now? Which of our aims does it support? How does this idea or decision fit into the big picture? Where does this development leave us with regard to our goals?

The second is to fine-tune the questions that management are using to structure their thinking and their papers. Because, as the saying goes, “the person who asks the questions controls the conversation”.

Few have done this as well as Carolyn McCall when turning around low-cost airline easyJet. When she joined the business in 2010 it was struggling with increased competition, low morale and rock-bottom customer experience.

She recognised that the business had its priorities in the wrong order — it needed to go People-Customers-Profit, not the other way around. We worked with her to build every board paper, KPI dashboard and management deck around a question that would put ‘people’ front and centre: “How do our people feel, and what can we do better to support and enable them?”

Managers, and the board, couldn’t help but see that all roads led back to this. By the time she left in 2017, she had doubled market share, increased revenues by 70%, and profits by 162%.

How can we use the QDI Principle to improve our board packs?

Anyone who writes for the board can adopt the QDI Principle and apply it when they come to write their next report.

If it’s the CEO, writing a crisp CEO’s report will not only set the structure for a good board meeting, it will also set the standard for other writers to follow.

If it’s another member of the executive or management team, then their paper will stand out from the crowd. And their peers will be tempted to follow suit when they see how well their proposals and performance updates land with the board.

But if the QDI Principle is applied universally, you infuse the whole board pack with razor-sharp insights that help the board perform — and you get everyone who writes board papers thinking more clearly too.

There are various ways to achieve this.

Templates can give a pack a consistent look and feel. They can also nudge writers to include certain information or tackle certain questions. But they can’t force people to write better.

Training can help people understand the principles of effective reporting, but there’s a big difference between telling people the theory and expecting them to change how they work to apply it in practice.

Technology can make it easier to share data. But it can encourage writers to share too much, compounding the problem of information overload.

Templates, training, and technology can all help but they’re not enough on their own. You need all of them, working together, to produce consistently high-quality board packs.

That’s why we developed Lucia, a revolutionary software platform that embeds the QDI Principle using smart templates and AI-powered prompts.

Lucia enables management to write focused board reports by asking them the paper’s purpose and context, what they want back from the reader, and how the paper relates to the company’s stakeholders and priorities. It then analyses whether the report is over or under-indexing against those requirements.

Lucia fuels critical thinking by asking writers to select from a customisable set of questions — giving them a framework of questions rather than a blank page to structure their thinking with, and helping them to spot and fill any gaps. There are also prompts for what to include in the answers and AI-powered nudges to warn you when you’re not hitting the mark.

Finally, Lucia drives great communication with real-time readability analysis and editing nudges. It can also auto-summarise the report’s key messages and insights, giving writers a starting point for their all-important executive summary.

As part of a programme to embed the QDI Principle throughout the whole organisation, led by the CEO and the board, Lucia can support better board packs, better conversations and better thinking at the top of the business — and at every other level too.

Additional resources:

If you'd like to learn more and find out how to apply these principles to specific papers, check out our best practice guides below.

How to…

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