What unexpected joy can be found from shorter board papers?

Non-executive directors

4 min read

Shorter papers may be great for the board, but what joy is there to be found beyond this? This was the topic for discussion at our recent event “The Unexpected Joy of Shorter Papers”.

We were joined by panellists Royston Hoggarth – Chair at Innovation Group and Cirrus, Anna Humphreys – Manager of Specialist Delivery at Board Intelligence, Paul Lester – Non-Executive Chairman at Essentra and McCarthy Stone, Laura Stewart – Business Development Manager at Board Intelligence, and Rachel Turk – Group Head of Strategy at Beazley, and board member of the Lloyd’s Market Association.

Why are shorter papers important?

Often, bloated and overly long papers can be indicative of other issues that may not be immediately obvious. Not only are they a chore to read, but they are also the canary in the coalmine, the early warning that an organisation may not be clear and decisive on the issues that matter. As Anna pointed out, they hamstring your agility to manoeuvre and adapt rapidly; in a world of intense supply chain issues, rampant inflation, and a looming recession, shorter papers allow leadership to see the wood for the trees to navigate through a crisis.

"I asked, ‘Before we start, could everybody put their hands up who has read every word of this report?’ Nobody did; I think the chair had half a hand up, but not a full one."– Paul Lester

As the conversation in the boardroom is set up by the papers, bloated papers that don’t hit the mark will produce bloated meetings that don’t hit the mark. Shorter papers, on the other hand, help to bring to the fore the most crucial issues that an organisation is facing, and are invaluable in ensuring the debate is focused on the most knotty issues requiring the board’s input. In their absence boards can drown in data or, perhaps, decide simply not to set sail at all.

How do you produce shorter papers?

Crucially, report authors often have no frame of reference as to whether their paper is hitting the mark. This was emphasised by Rachel, who suggested that it can be helpful to show the art of the possible by sharing best practice papers with report authors, giving them a target to aim towards and ensuring they know what good looks like. This was reinforced by Anna, who highlighted the importance of asking the right questions to produce a high-impact paper.

"Great briefing drives much shorter and much higher quality papers. The briefing is all about asking the right questions." – Anna Humphreys

Producing shorter papers begins long before the writing stage. It starts with the questions that each paper needs to address and the purpose that it serves. As Royston said, each paper in a board pack needs to have a clear purpose. Specific questions provide the author with a crystal-clear brief that focuses their thinking on the most important issues, allowing them to take ownership of the question and be upfront. It also ensures that the data used to answer these questions will be wholly relevant; anything non-essential can be included in an appendix to the pack.

"Strategically, you’re trying to get the company from A to B…Anything that’s not directly linked to that, I don’t want to see it in my board paper." – Royston Hoggarth

Rachel also emphasised that papers should not be sugar-coating every message, as this ensures only that the paper won’t be believed. Here, writing in the first person can make a world of difference as it transforms a previously faceless paper into one that is much more personable and easier to read. This helps to provide the clarity that the board members need to understand what they are being asked to do, and arms them with the information they need to do it.

"I am yet to meet an organisation that says they don’t have enough data; it tends to be too much." – Laura Stewart

A lot of organisations have found templates to help ensure consistently concise papers that hit the mark. However, to be effective report authors need training and author workshops to embed best practice and transform their thinking, thereby ensuring that old habits die fairly easily.

What impact can they have on an organisation?

Often, as Laura emphasised, quality writing implies quality thinking, and this is especially true in the case of shorter papers. Paul echoed this, noting that it is easier to simply throw everything you know into a paper than to invest the time needed to grapple with the crux of the questions the paper is answering. These papers often lack structure and can obscure what is needed from the board. By investing the time needed to produce a concise paper that hits the mark, report authors can crystalise their thinking, thereby enabling them to better spot opportunities and risks, as well as to recognise the most crucial issues.

"If there’s a bit more thinking before you start writing; then the report writes itself because you’ve thought about what the content is." – Rachel Turk

The unexpected joy

By driving better thinking and communication, shorter papers can boost agility, drive better conversations, and ensure that the board has the right information to make the right decisions, faster. Of course, shorter papers also mean that the board can spend less time trawling through titanic packs. Now, armed with the right information, they are released to focus on what matters and grapple with the issues facing their organisation.

"We thought our papers had the right detail in them, and the right information. We’ve since done a large project with Board Intelligence to understand papers, and adopted their entire structure; the difference is night and day." – Rachel Turk

If you like the sound of producing shorter, sharper papers, download The ExCo’s Guide to Shorter Papers, and learn how to get started within your organisation.

   The ExCo’s Guide to Shorter Papers  Want punchier papers that make you shine in front of the board? DOWNLOAD THE GUIDE

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