Summaries in decision-making board papers

Summaries in decision-making board papers

By Mary Morel | June 2016

Most board papers are short and some people argue that a summary is not necessary. I like a summary in a decision-making board paper because it lets me know what the paper is about and why the recommendation matters. (Most recommendations are at the beginning of board papers these days, but even if they are at the end, many directors read them first!)

Imagine you’re a director and you’ve received a paper that recommends the board approves spending $X million on Y (e.g. office relocation). Your first reaction might be: ‘Why should we spend that much money on moving office?’, ‘There must be cheaper options’, ‘Why not just renovate the current office?’

Many board papers leap straight from the recommendation to a background section, so these questions are not answered immediately. Instead writers discuss things such as the current situation and historical information.

Much simpler if directors learnt upfront why the writer was making the recommendation. Then they could read the rest of the paper to understand the writer’s reasoning and identify unanswered questions.

Board paper summaries are not traditional executive summaries

Even if a board paper template has a summary section, many writers don’t use it well: they either copy and paste material from the body of the paper or treat it as an introduction.

One of the reasons why writers find board paper summaries difficult is that when they’re confronted with the heading ‘summary’, they think about the traditional type of executive summary that is often a page in length. They think the summary must be ‘weighty’ and worry that this will make their paper repetitive. They’re right: their writing would be repetitive if they wrote a traditional executive summary.

Role of the summary in a decision-making board paper

In a decision-making paper, the recommendation and summary work in tandem. The recommendation is the ‘what’ and the summary answers the ‘why’ questions and flags any issues the directors should be aware of as they read the paper. Since the recommendation and summary work in tandem, the writer does not need to repeat all the information in the recommendation.

A board paper summary can is much shorter than the traditional summary – often two or three paragraphs or even a few bullet points.

How to write a summary in a decision-making board paper

I recommend writing a summary in a board paper first, not last, because writing a summary first helps you clarify your key messages. The summary then lays the foundation for the structure of the rest of the paper. You may need to refine it when you write your final draft.

By the time you’re asked to write a board paper, you will have your preferred planning method. When I ask people how they plan, many treat their first draft as a plan, some jot down ideas on paper or post-it notes and a few plan thoroughly using mind-mapping or storylining.

I don’t think it matters how you plan as long as you structure your summary and paper well. If I were writing a board paper, I would put on my imaginary director’s hat and think about questions such as:

  • What are the strategic implications of this recommendation?
  • What are the financial implications? Has this recommendation been budgeted for? What are the long-term consequences?
  • What are the benefits of this recommendation?
  • What are the risks and how will they be managed?
  • Other issues, such as safety and environmental impact

Joseph M. Williams and Gregory G. Colomb (The Craft of Argument, Pearson Longman, 2007) suggest developing an argument based on claims, reasons and evidence.

I believe X  because… based on Y.

Although you are not going to use the first person singular when you write a board paper, you may find that phrase useful to tease out your thinking.

They suggest developing your argument by asking yourself five types of questions:

  1. What’s your point?
  2. Why should your readers agree? (reasons)
  3. What evidence do you have?
  4. What’s your logic? (assumptions)
  5. But have you considered…?

For example:

That the Board approve relocating the office to X address with a fitout cost of $X and annual rent of $X. The contract is for five years with the right of renewal for another five years. (what you want, i.e. your point)

The organisation has outgrown its current premises since merging with company X and taking on contract staff to work on X project. (reason for the move)

While the rent for the recommended premises is higher ($X) than the current rent ($X) and the other option considered ($X), the building has a number of advantages, such as flexible floor space, modern fit-out and IT infrastructure, and proximity to major clients. (logic and evidence)

If the organisation downsized in the future, for example on completing X project, it would be possible to sublease part of the office space. (considered a potential risk)

How do you approach writing a summary in a decision-making board paper?

Subscribe to my Write to Govern blogs and receive an email when there’s a new post.