Writing background sections in board papers

By Mary Morel | 6 September 2012

Writing the background section of a board paper

With regard to decision-making papers, I am often surprised at how much detail writers go into about what happened in the past. The writer may be recommending a solution to fix a problem, but they spend three quarters of the paper talking about the horrendous difficulties faced in the past and why nothing works. Then the solution is often discussed with the flimsiest of detail and so fails to be convincing.

Why do writers do this?

I’ve decided there are two reasons:

  • The background is easier to write about because it is in the past and writers are very familiar with it.
  • Writers are often frustrated by the things that didn’t work in the past and the impact that is having on the present. They just want to get it out of their system! What better way to vent than to write about it.

When executives and boards are making a decision they only want to know enough about the past to know that something has to change. It is the proposed change they will be most interested in and they want to be convinced that the writer’s solution is not just another bad decision in a series of bad ones.

Now I am not saying that writers should not include background to provide context and history. Because directors do not keep board papers, writers need to remind the board of previous papers it has received on the topic and the decisions it made. But such background should be kept brief.

The more important part of the paper is the discussion section. Writers will make a more coherent business case if they discuss the benefits of their recommendation for the business. They should not ignore risks, but often the main reason for making changes is to improve the business in alignment with the strategy.

For example, if a writer is proposing a new online customer model, they could briefly describe the current face-to-face model, and then describe the benefits of the online model. At this point, the writer needs to be specific and provide details rather than make sweeping statements, such as ‘more holistic’ or ‘a fresh approach’.

I was surprised recently to find that you cannot buy online from IKEA. I assume this is because IKEA does well enough without needing an online portal. If an IKEA executive wanted to convince the IKEA board to change this policy, they would not spend three quarters of the paper writing about the current system. Instead, they would need to present benefits and costs that would convince the board that a huge investment in an interactive website would be worth the expense.

Writers need to remember that the past is past and although it influences the present, decisions are made about the future.