Would Your Board Be Better Off 'Dodging the Bullets?'
Boards, to be effective, are dependent to a significant extent on their ability to access information in a form and amount that meets their needs. Over the years, as more has become expected of governing boards, this has translated into the perceived need to process higher volumes of material in preparation for board and board committee meetings. Management has played its part in this trend; understandably chief executives do not want to be accused of keeping their boards ‘in the dark’. Technology has also played its part; it has never been easier to add material to board meeting packs.
Not surprisingly, board members everywhere are concerned about their ability to engage effectively with the volume of material they face. This concern, ts increased by the knowledge that legally they are expected to have thoroughly reviewed, understood and acted on any information formally provided to them. A typical response to these pressures has been to request that material be presented to them in a more condensed form. It is not surprising, therefore, that many directors are enthusiastic advocates of the greater use of the bullet point format for board reporting. (1) Typically, they argue that bullet points:
- are more concise and more straightforward to understand;
- assist in focussing attention (and thus provide better support for board conversations around crucial issues);
- are more visually appealing (i.e. they break up the text and create more ‘white space’); and
- are more economical (for management in its production and directors in their meeting preparation).
Intuitively, the use of bullet points is a logical response to the need to reduce the volume of material directors must review. There is no doubt that bullet points have their place, most commonly where a short, concise list is appropriate. In many respects, however, what directors expect to be the benefits of the bullet point format are illusory and their application potentially dangerous. In a boardroom context, the overuse and misapplication of the bullet-point form obscures rather than reveals. In organisations where a great deal of information is presented to the board via projected slide shows rather than written reports, this problem is even more significant. (2) .
If the bullet point style of information presentation has become a feature of your board meeting packs, you would be wise to rethink this. If you do, you will be in good company. Amazon and Netflix are just two of the major corporates who have made explicit moves against bullet point style presentations and reports. (3) Problems to be aware of include the following.
The use of bullet points should have benefits for the reader (e.g. to summarise, highlight or otherwise create impact). Simply converting what would otherwise be a long form narrative into a series of bullet points results in long lists of staccato bullet points that are themselves too long. This makes a report tedious and difficult, if not impossible, to read and retain the information they contain.
In reducing the volume of material a board must process, a narrative that would otherwise be a coherent whole with a beginning, middle and end, is likely to become a series of unconnected fragments. Squeezing what boards need to know into bullet point form foreshortens evidence and obscures the thinking behind it. The analytical quality of what should be a serious presentation of evidence is lost. The process of reduction in length virtually compels the use of various forms of shorthand (e.g. jargon, acronyms, vague references, and ill-defined pronouns) because there isn't room for more. Consequently, too many board papers become little more than collections of imprecise statements and inadequately argued claims. What are typically overloaded board meeting agendas leave little time for these fragments to be challenged and more completely expounded and explored. This problem is likely to get worse for reasons well beyond the control of most boards. (4)
The narrative form plays a vital role in learning and memorability. A good story defines relationships, describes a sequence of events, explains cause and effect, and establishes a priority among items. These various elements are more likely to be remembered as part of a complex whole. In contrast, the content of bullet point formatted lists is difficult to recall due to what psychologists refer to as primacy and recency effects. A reader is likely to remember some things at the beginning of a list because these were where they started reading (primacy), and others at the end because that is where they finished up (recency). Content in the middle of a list tends to blur.
Depending on the way board reports are produced and work their way up through layers of management to the board, valuable information and crucial levels of understanding are likely to be filtered out. Some filtering is expected to happen in any case, but the use of the bullet point form compounds the risk. Just how dangerous this can be was demonstrated in the case of the Columbia space shuttle disaster in 2003. Debris impact at take-off damaged the shuttle’s heat shield. The craft disintegrated upon re-entering Earth's atmosphere, killing all seven crew members. Engineers had observed and reported on the consequent risk to the spacecraft while it was damaged but still functioning. However, their concerns and coherent expert thought and reasoning, expressed initially in sentences, were compressed into bullet points and progressively summarised as they travelled up the NASA hierarchy. The uncertainties and assumptions signalling danger while there was possibly time to do something about it, were dropped out of the information chain. (5)
This problem frequently occurs in business planning and corporate strategy. (6) A great deal of strategic plan content, for example, is substantively expressed in a bullet point form that results in it being little more than a compilation of abstract, empty, generic statements (e.g. ‘Reduce high delivered costs’, ‘Explore sales cost reduction’, ‘Reduce process and product costs’). Such statements fail to either provide a guide to those responsible for implementation or to provide any solid basis for senior management and the board to track and review plan implementation.
Lack of transparency
It might seem, intuitively, that if a complex argument or analysis is broken down and explained point by point, it would be easier for others to understand but that is not the case. The reason is the illusion of transparency - the mistaken idea that whatever is going on in our own heads is evident to other people. Reducing an argument to a series of bullet points removes the words that in a narrative connect ideas and ensure that a case has a logical flow. If the connections between ideas intended by an author are not explicitly drawn, there is no certainty that readers will spot these themselves.
Lack of clarity about significance and relative importance
The use of bullet points to reduce the volume of material tends to remove the description of the context which is needed to give meaning and to help the reader understand the author’s reasoning. For example, bullet point lists seldom refer to the assumptions on which bullet point statements are based. When assumptions are not clearly stated readers infer their own and make judgements accordingly. Frequently, bullet point reporting also jumbles the ‘nice to know’ with the ‘need to know’. The failure to discriminate occurs all the time in board meeting packs because boards seldom define clearly what they ‘need to know’, and because board paper authors often lack a sufficient understanding of the board’s role and responsibilities and, therefore, what information to give directors. However, the overuse of bullet points compounds this problem. Each bullet point appears to have equal weight unless there has been explicit use of sequence to denote relative importance. In a list of bullet points, therefore, the main message is frequently obscured.
Flawed reasoning is hidden
The production of a narrative style report imposes a discipline that preparing a list of bullet points does not require. To write a full, logical statement encourages a writer to think clearly and explore the subtlety and complexity of the situation they are trying to convey to their board. Not least, for example, it forces writers to make explicit their assumptions about cause and effect. Anyone who produces board papers will have experienced the salutary experience that the difficulty in getting an analysis or proposal down on paper exposes the flaws in their thinking. In a narrative, both the insights of an author and any weakness in their logic jumps out. This is rarely the case in a bullet point list.
Boards become vulnerable to the ‘pitch’
When it becomes a case of ‘short reports for short report’s sake’ boards should be aware that encouraging bullet point style reporting can also increase the board's susceptibility to management proposals. Tufte in his excoriating analysis of the use of PowerPoint and associated bullet-point formats drew attention to what he referred to as the growth of the 'pitch culture'. He saw this reflected in information being presented in a form not designed to accurately inform but to achieve a particular decision. He quoted Nobel prize winning theoretical physicist Richard Feynman’s report on the first fatal US space shuttle accident (the Challenger, in 1986). Feynman concluded that 'For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.' (7) Boards should be wary of over-summarised information and analysis couched in overly optimistic language.
Lack of precision
Many of the shortcomings described above mean it is quite likely that different board members will make different interpretations of material presented to them in a bullet point format. In political situations different, self-serving interpretations may be quite convenient. However, in the worst cases, we have seen directors and executives who have left important discussions with entirely different perceptions of what has been decided, and why.
Implications for boards
Exploring and understanding important and often complex matters is critical for any governing board. It is clear, however, that the understandable need felt by many directors to reduce the volume of material they must process is not solved by condensing what they would otherwise be expected to read into a format that risks creating quite a different set of problems. Directors need a vehicle to access staff knowledge and insights and to share - and test – their own. Too great a reliance on bullet point formatted reports is likely to result in dependence on overly compressed and filtered reports at the expense of the full disclosure of relevant material and the kind of thorough analysis that exposes and facilitates a complete train of thought.
The solution lies in boards being more active and thoughtful about what information they need to fulfil their responsibilities. Too much of what goes into board meeting packs is peripheral at best to the board’s responsibilities. Very little harm would result if that material was removed completely instead of being reduced. Boards should ask themselves whether a preference for bullet point style reporting is not just an easy way to avoid investing time to define and specify reporting criteria applicable to the responsibilities they – and they alone - must discharge. Boards must set and hold their chief executives to a standard of reporting that ensures they have a complete understanding of what is important from a governance perspective. Few boards today can afford the opportunity cost of being distracted by what is often little more than unprocessed data relevant, at best, to management’s operational functions.
In determining the content and presentation of board packs the approach adopted should reflect what is important to be communicated and explained to the board, not by the limitations of a preferred presentation style and mistaken beliefs about what benefits it offers.
1) In the board packs we are asked to review, we are also seeing an increase in one page ‘infographics’. In general, few of those infographics contain information that would not have been more easily accessed and better understood and retained by directors had it been in prose format.
(2) See, for example, Edward R Tufte (2006). The Cognitive Style of PowerPoint: Pitching Out Corrupts Within. Graphics Press LLC, Cheshire, Conn. Second Edition
(3) There have been prominent examples in recent years of the explicit rejection of PowerPoint-type presentations as much as anything because of the consequences of compressed, bullet point style thinking. It is well known, for example, that Jeff Bezos banned PowerPoint at Amazon because he became increasingly frustrated at the way it encouraged people to reduce their thinking to a series of bullet points. Bezos rejected what he saw as the lazy thinking, the over-compression and the broken logic flows that went with the format. He wanted to get raw information in a structured form. At Amazon, the shift was to important arguments presented as essays that Bezos would read silently in meetings. (For a discussion of this change at Amazon and the broader context see, for example, Eugene Wei: Compress to Impress ). Netflix is a more recent example. It has attracted a great deal of attention for the deliberate shift it is making from a ‘presentation culture' to a transfer of information via written reports. The key feature of this at the board level is the quarterly ‘board memo’, 20 to 40 pages of written text highlighting business performance, industry trends, competitive developments and other strategic and organisational issues. Directors' exploration of more detailed hyper-linked material is self-directed according to what they believe is most important, interesting or requires the most attention from a fiduciary standpoint. The switch to narrative-based reporting is said to have greatly increased the efficiency and effectiveness of board meetings (see, for example, David F Larker and Brian Tayan. ‘Netflix Approach to Governance’, Stanford Closer Look Series, 1 May 2018).
(4) For various reasons, it is predictable that the quality of reporting to boards is likely to reduce rather than improve. The growing preference across generations, but particularly among those who are younger, to use smartphones for texting and tweeting will only make serious communication of valuable information on which critical judgements and decisions must be made, more difficult. The impact of this form of technology has not only been to move away from fully explored ideas expressed in a prose form but to reduce readers’ attention spans.
(5) Tufte (op cit., p.14)
(6) See, for example, Gordon Shaw, Robert Brown, and Philip Bromiley, "Strategic Stories: How 3M is Rewriting Business Planning," Harvard Business Review, 76 (May – June 1998)
(7) Tufte (op cit., p.15)
Readers who wish to receive or produce better board papers – including making better use of bullet points when they are appropriate format - are also referred to Mary Morel: Write to Govern: How to write effective board papers. Bond Beach, NSW. The M Factor Pty Ltd. Second edition, 2014.