If templates and training won’t fix your board pack, what will?

Collective intelligence

5 min read

For the past five years, Board Intelligence and the Chartered Governance Institute UK & Ireland have been researching company board packs, asking directors and governance professionals to assess their strengths and weaknesses and observing trends in the content and quality of board reports.

In that time, board packs have got longer but also less insightful. And with half of board members comparing their board pack’s key messages to “needles in a haystack”, it’s clear that bloated board materials are making an already challenging job even harder — obscuring insight, derailing discussions, and delaying decisions.

“Information overload is one way of befuddling the board.”

Martha Lane Fox, Chair, Open University and WeTransfer; President, British Chambers of Commerce

Many governance professionals bravely take it upon themselves to fix the problem, painstakingly reviewing and editing individual papers before sharing them with the board. But holding the red pen is costly, distracting, and unsustainable.

And it’s ineffective, relieving the symptoms without addressing the root cause of the problem: that management aren’t given the right tools for the job.

So, what can you do to improve your organisation’s board papers without carrying the burden yourself?

Do templates and training improve the quality of board papers?

Most governance teams will eventually put down the red pen and try to tackle their board reporting problem by offering training to management or rolling out report templates. But just 27% of those who provide in-house training rated their board pack as “Good” or “Excellent”, and 81% of the organisations who use templates for their board papers classed their packs as “Poor” or “Weak”.

Hardly a ringing endorsement, but it’s not altogether surprising. Research shows that we forget around 75% of new information within six days if it’s not appropriately applied. So, although training can be useful for encouraging management to engage with the principles of effective report writing, it’s unlikely to change how people work day-to-day — especially if the training relates to something they do only once a month. What’s more, it’s hard to roll out and sustain the impact when you’re working with large teams of report writers and a cast that frequently changes.

What about templates? Unlike training, they’re a relatively low-cost option and easy to disseminate across a large team. They can encourage report writers to use a certain font, follow a specific layout, or include an executive summary, all of which can help to smooth the rougher edges of the board pack. But they can’t force management to write concisely or answer all the questions on the board’s mind. And they’ll only make a big dent on the board pack if every report writer uses them as the governance team intended — and that’s a big “if”.

“Typically, we find that around 20% embrace training and change their behaviour, another 20% don’t engage with it at all, and the rest, despite being well-intentioned, will adopt some of the advice but will quickly forget most of it.”

Anna Scholes, Senior Manager, Board Intelligence

How do you solve the board pack problem for the long term?

To deliver a better board pack that withstands the tests of time, scale, and changing personnel, you first need to be clear on what a good board paper looks like.

And what we’ve found is that a great board report is stacked with critical thinking that’s communicated with impact and focused on what matters most to the organisation:

  • Critical thinking is what you need to surface insights, generate actionable ideas, and produce robust plans that the board can get behind.
  • Great communication helps this thinking to travel — it gets management’s insights and ideas out in the open, giving the board the opportunity to test, refine, and act on it.
  • Focus means these efforts move the needle, because they’re trained on the organisation’s most pressing challenges and exciting opportunities.
The three pillars and nine tenets of the Question Driven Insight (QDI) Principle.

Three pillars to load board reports with sharp thinking and convert insight to action.


These capabilities are what we look for when we review board papers. They’re at the heart of our methodology, the Question Driven Insight (QDI) Principle, and any board pack intervention should aim to embed them.

You’ll know it’s worked when you’re confident that your report writers are thinking in a deep and structured way about their subject matter and surfacing insights that the board can act on, every time they write a paper.

“We’ve adopted the QDI Principle to help us think through the questions we should be answering and the storytelling behind our reports.”

~ Rachael Turk, Group Head of Strategy, Beazley (FTSE 100 insurer) — watch the video

How can technology improve board papers?

It’s one thing to have a methodology that helps management to think well, but another to get them to use it consistently. As anyone who’s ever tried (and failed) to adopt a new year’s resolution will know, old habits die hard.

To embed best practice, you need to make it easy for people to follow the new methodology by integrating it into their ways of working. And that’s where technology can be transformative. It can fill the gaps left by training and templates, gently nudging report writers to follow best practice and embedding new behaviours as simple steps in a process.

This has roots in the Japanese concept of poka-yoke (“mistake-proofing”), where you design a product or process in such a way that it’s difficult to get things wrong. The term originated on the manufacturing floor in the 1960s, but it is ubiquitous today — seen everywhere from lawnmower safety bars to filing cabinets that won’t let you open more than one drawer at a time.

It also extends to modern software tools which, fuelled by recent advancements in AI, can set you off on the right road and gently guide you back to it when you stray away.

Lucia, Board Intelligence’s AI-powered management reporting platform, does just this — acting as an always on-call critical friend and editor, using smart nudges to help people write better, think in a deep and structured way about the topic at hand, and focus their brainpower on what matters most to the organisation.

For example, Lucia tells you when you’ve paid more attention to the opportunities than the risks, forgotten to answer key questions, or got stuck looking in the rear-view mirror. It can also warn you when you’re being overly wordy and it will point out if you’ve forgotten to put the bottom line up front.

“Lucia has really helped me write meaningful, well-structured reports. The AI guides me to think about what I want to say and the key messages to get across.”

~ Catherine Schlieben, Group Head of Performance & Development, National Grid

Real-time nudges like these help to ensure that papers hit the mark and set the stage for a great board meeting — long before the governance team starts pulling the pack together.

With Lucia helping management to apply best practice consistently, directors get what they need. And governance teams can finally put down the red pen and focus their energies where they can add most value.

  Lucia   Write great reports, every time    A thinking and writing platform that helps you to write brilliantly clever and  beautiful reports that surface breakthrough insights and spur your business to  action. Find out more

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