Everyone wants to read concise board reports and papers, but lately I have noticed an over-emphasis on length as a criterion. For instance, I have heard about one board telling management to reduce its board pack by two-thirds, and another board setting a page limit of two pages for board and committee papers.
But what happens if these instructions are followed to the letter?
Reducing the size of the board pack
When an overall page deadline is set, I’ve noticed that organisations tend to shuffle some documents, such as policies and the annual report, into another online portal (called a ‘reading room’ or ‘resource centre’ in some board paper apps). This is just robbing Peter to pay Paul because directors still have to read these documents.
Another tactic is to change the formatting to reduce the amount of white space. In a section, such as the minutes, this can save quite a few pages. But cramped text also impedes readability, so this is not a win. I saw a two-page risk paper recently with no line spacing at all. This was possible because each paragraph was numbered. I simply did not want to read this paper.
Keeping board papers to a maximum of two pages
When writers are told to keep board papers to a maximum of two pages, many just add attachments (also known as appendices or annexures). These attachments are usually not policed as much as the template, so writers get away with it, but the amount of reading hasn’t been reduced.
I am not opposed to length guidelines, and often see four pages recommended. That seems more reasonable than two pages, but common sense must still apply and some papers may be longer.
I don’t know about you, but I would much rather read a 10-page board paper with no attachment than a two-page board paper with a 40-page attachment.
Length is not the only criterion for board reporting
I am not saying that being concise doesn’t matter. Of course it does, but length requirements should be guidelines, not mandatory. There will always be some topics that are complex or expensive that need more explanation.
Length is also sometimes only a symptom of other problems, such as poor writing and writers providing too much irrelevant operational detail.
When a board decides to reduce the size of its overall board pack, it should work with management to assess the clarity and relevance of items within the pack. Often board packs grow like topsy and need pruning from time to time.
Along with re-assessing the content of the board pack, maybe it’s time to assess the board paper templates and train writers to write more clearly and concisely.