Many of us approach the end of a consulting project with a sense of dread. Not because we fear the unemployment that might follow, but because we must usually write a final report for our client, and most of us don’t like writing.
Part of the discomfort we feel may stem from the fact that a final report must be definitive. Until we put pen to paper, or fingers to the keyboard, our ideas are provisional, our arguments sketchy, our evidence incomplete. We may have formed a well-founded opinion, perhaps even an instinctive one, but we may not yet have fully marshalled our arguments and our evidence. The report we must write must demonstrate conclusively, consistently and coherently that we have brought knowledge, experience, imagination and reason to the process of consulting. This requires intellectual effort, and getting the brain started on the business of thinking hard isn’t always easy. It’s like going to the gym after a long day at the office.
Which is why it’s often a mistake to leave report writing to the end. My own experience of consulting is that writing things down, or representing and analysing them is part of the sifting, constructing, creative, solving process. Often I don’t know what I think until I put my thoughts into words. On the page, on the screen, words must meet higher standards of coherence, clarity and logic. Faults in reasoning, weaknesses in solutions, become apparent when we put them into words and represent them in pictures.
So it’s best to start writing at the very start of a project. Write down your assumptions, your findings, your ideas, the issues you haven’t yet resolved as soon as you can. It doesn’t always matter if your jottings lack structure. As things come into focus, you’ll find that you can rearrange your text, delete what isn’t useful, and gradually arrive at a structure that makes some sense. Writing is part of the intellectual and creative process.
Of course, some don’t need to do this. Think of Mozart. He could imagine an entire symphony, complete with orchestration, and writing it down on paper was merely a chore. But few of us are Mozart!
Although I advocate a piecemeal, early start to report writing, a final report should conform to some sensible conventions. The best test of what it should contain is to imagine an interested but uninformed reader who will come to your report knowing nothing about the project.
The reader will want to know:
- Why the project was commissioned
- What was the project’s scope
- What was assumed
- What was deliberately or inevitably excluded
- Who worked on the project (from the client’s as well as the consultant’s organisation)
- Who wrote the report (and who revised it)
- What was the project’s method
- What were the findings
- What are the recommendations
- What are the next steps
- What are the dissenting views, if any
I like to present everything at three levels of detail.
- A summary (often, inexplicably, called an Executive Summary as if senior managers need read no further)
- The main body of the report
- Appendices containing supporting detail
The purpose of a summary is twofold. First, for some (lazy?!) readers it may be sufficient (as the Bluffer’s Guide to Opera might alleviate the social discomfort of an evening of Grand Opera). Second, it signals in advance the direction of the complete report, so that you can read at the second level with the authors’ conclusions in mind.
So, for example (using the traditional bullet-point style):
- This project was commissioned with Board Approval by the Logistics Director to examine the cost and reputational damage resulting from inaccurate stock data relating to the company’s ten warehouses
- The project team investigated and documented current stock management procedures, visiting each warehouse and interviewing all staff involved in stock movements, and was able to determine the probable source and consequences of mistakes
- Stock handling procedures are inconsistent and prone to inaccuracy. Stocktaking, as well as reconciliations between issuing and receiving locations, are not methodical. Current problems result in losses of sales (estimated at 140 K EUR annually), overstocking (average 12%, representing 80 K EUR of working capital) and reputational damage (unquantifiable)
- Manual procedures should be replaced by a simple company-wide off-the-shelf computerised system
- The cost of implementing such a system need not exceed 100 K EUR, with ongoing annual costs of 25 K EUR and an implementation project could be completed in six months, requiring the full-time attention of one senior manager in the logistics department for that period, and two days a month of IT time
- The next step should be to commission a description of the stock management procedures to be supported, and then to seek tenders for software and implementation consulting
The Main Body of the Report
The main body of the report will elaborate on this summary.
- Background will describe in more detail why the consulting project was commissioned, citing examples of the issues it should address
- Scope will define the limits imposed on the project (e.g. it should exclude certain kinds of warehouse (stationery, for example) and should not tackle the issue of item identification, etc.). It is as important to exclude explicitly as to include explicitly
- Participants will list members of the project team, what they do, and what their role on the project will be, and all contributors to the project (for example, those interviewed for their opinion)
- Author(s) will list all contributors to the document and the dates of versions and revisions
- Assumptions will list agreed assumptions relevant to the project (e.g. that the company has provided a complete list of relevant staff to interview)
- Exclusions will list any relevant data or opinions that cannot be obtained, and the reasons (e.g. that the logistics department were unable to provide any documentation on inventory procedures)
- Method will describe how the project team carried out its work (referring to any supporting documents (e.g. questionaires) in Appendices)
- Findings will summarise all facts relevant to the report’s recommendations (referring to detail in Appendices)
- Recommendations will lay out a number of suggested courses of action, with priorities and costs
- Next Steps will lay out what should be done next in order to implement the recommendations
- Dissenting Views (a rare section) will identify disagreements as to findings and recommendations
These provide additional information that a reader may examine in order to judge the reasonableness of method, findings, recommendations, etc.
In all cases language should be plain and simple, persuasive but not emotional. Brevity, clarity, and readability are the goals. Do not be dull, if you can avoid it.