Why templates often make Board packs worse (ref 59)

Is your Board pack too big? A bit rubbish? This email reveals who is to blame (and it might surprise you). Next month's email then explains what to do about it – a few work-arounds. I thought of putting these work-arounds in this email, but it became too long. Hence today’s is unrelentingly critical (other than one positive idea later). Not ideal. But bad packs aren’t ideal either, so stick with it, it’ll be worth it.

Templates - the devil in disguise: many people believe that templates solve the problem of bad packs. It's like colouring by numbers: “In your Board submission, include: Section 1: Summary; Section 2: Background, etc, Section 7: EU; Section 8: Diversity; etc”.  I often get emails asking if I’ve a template for Capital Expenditure proposals. Or Board packs. Etc. Firms will even sell you such templates.

Why templates are like traffic: I saw a great satnav poster which said: "You aren't stuck in traffic. You are traffic". So too with templates: they don't solve the problem of bad packs. Often, they are the problem. They're a neat idea that has gone wrong. Here are why they create problems:

They make reports repetitive: I once saw a report on “Capturing new ideas”, and the template said: “Page 1: Objective; page 2: Method; page 3: Result; page 4: Benefit”. So the report pretty much said (but in many more words): “Page 1: To capture new ideas; page 2: We capture new ideas; page 3: The result – new ideas will be captured; page 4: We benefit from new ideas”. Crazy.

They encourage contrived thinking: how does our project affect the EU, diversity, human rights? Often, the answer is “Not at all”, but rather than say that, we contrive something merely to avoid an empty box in our report.

They stifle initiative: “Be creative,” bosses coo – then insist we follow templates.

They encourage boiler-plate waffle. “During all stages of planning and implementation,” the report says, “we’ll ensure project members are cognisant of the need to comply with environmental regulations and best practice. We’ll plan our steps in order to minimise problems etc”. It doesn’t pass the Not test. It’s generic – anyone can write it, even if they know nothing about the topic.

This last point – generic waffle – is a big problem, for it surfaces many times within reports. In the Diversity section. The EU one. And the Environment. The template has 23 sections, half of which aren't actually needed for most submissions. But the report-writer feels obliged to fill them all with generic waffle that adds nothing.

Small wonder board packs and submissions are so long and bad.

Why so many section headings? It's to ensure the template-creator doesn't get a kicking from the Board… imagine that, in the template, there's no section on NAFTA (the North American Free Trade Agreement) – it’s never been relevant to date. But imagine it's relevant to the report sent in today - and the report fails to mention NAFTA (for it wasn't in the template...). Shock, horror. The Board almost makes a duff decision. A post-mortem follows – “How did we come so close to a mistake?!?” - and after hand-wringing and blame-storming, the template gets enlarged to include a section on NAFTA. Backsides covered. Reports enlarged.


Still not convinced that templates create trouble? Then try this logic:

1. Bad writers still create bad reports, even with templates – they populate sections with badly written rubbish.

2. Good writers create good reports, even without templates.

But… maybe not. All too easily, templates turn good writers into bad ones. Faced with having to populate 23 ‘templated’ sections, it's tough to craft good stuff. 

Let’s summarise. Templates don’t prevent bad reports and aren’t needed for good ones – and sometimes even turn good reports into bad ones. Hardly a compelling case for them. Next month's email shows what to do instead. 

The positive bit: imagine you're drafting the summary of a report, but you just can't quite put your finger on what exactly you wish to convey. Sound familiar? Click here, it's a free Chapter from my book. It shows you a neat, simple trick that helps you get to the heart of it all. The trick is great for talks too. It's probably the most important Chapter of the book.

Finally, here are two bits of fun on templates, albeit PowerPoint ones... a previous email update said a friend had sent me 'dashboard' templates he'd seen - we download the templates, change words, and lo', our reports are sorted. He sent them for my amusement, for they're awful, e.g. to show the 'Top Five Revenue Sources', adopt and adapt Figure 1. What the @*&*?. (Some words are upside-down, so readers twist their necks to read them.)

Also, I've recently received PowerPoint templates for talks - the accompanying blurb said: "Before you start your presentation, your audience are just waiting, bored. Inspire them with these PowerPoint video backgrounds". So... click here. And ask yourself: "Do I feel inspired?".


PS what about insisting ‘executive’ summaries are just one-page? That sorts things, no? No, as a future email update explains - and you also learn why writing is like singing, not jogging.

Clarity and Impact Ltd | +44 20 8840 4507 | jon@jmoon.co.uk | www.jmoon.co.uk

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