Vanessa Richards is a corporate communications and governance consultant in Australia

A camel has famously been described as a ‘horse designed by committee’. I feel this is somewhat unfair on the camel; I have met a few of them and they always seemed to me to be pretty clear about their purpose and direction in life.

But it is a useful aphorism nonetheless, and I’ve been reflecting on it as I slowly recover from reporting season. In the hope of generating some sympathy for your poor, beleaguered reporting team, I thought I’d share how the horse becomes a camel in the annual reporting process.

Stakeholder disinterest

Firstly, you start from a position of deep disinterest from most of your stakeholders. They’re still recovering from the last report and, understandably, want to get on with their day jobs. It’s too early for them to be able to sketch out a picture of that year’s performance, but you have to ask for it anyway as otherwise it’ll be too late.

Result: the horse develops a lumbering gait that makes it almost impossible to ride at speed.

If you do manage to get feedback from senior leaders, it’s to tell you how you should have fought yesterday’s battle: ‘Can we please not do [whatever it was that went horribly wrong last year] again?’

Any broader direction is along the lines of ‘I can’t tell you what it is but I will know it when I see it’ (or don’t see it).

Result: the horse has to be modified in order to carry considerably greater burdens over harsher terrain.

Gathering views

Once you’re getting into the swing, you start to gather views on how the narrative should run. Investor relations want to focus on whatever the last question was that they got from their briefing sessions. Marketing want to do exactly/nothing the same as the competitors. Sustainability want a four-page spread on the tree-planting day. Various departments want their moment in the sun, or would prefer not to talk about what happened this year, thank you very much.

Result: the horse gets a hump – possibly two.

Now comes the time to meld these pieces into a coherent whole. Everyone wants to see what everyone else has done that could conceivably relate to their area of expertise, and they all have a different version of what exactly happened and why.

Everybody thinks they can write, and refuse any attempts to modify their jargon or non-sequiturs. They all complain to you about the others, and if you set up a meeting to get them to sort it out between them, none of them turn up.

Result: the horse is far more likely to spit in your face.

Inspection time

You’re getting close to the end now but this is where it gets really tricky. Compliance, legal and audit reviews inspect your creation from nose to tail. Auditors query the inspired descriptions of the year’s achievements. Legal discover a new compliance requirement nobody’s even heard of before.

Result: the horse is a bit bigger than you’d planned.

Finally, senior leaders and the board review the report. They invariably complain about the length of the draft. Best-case scenario, you get pointed suggestions on presentation. Worst-case scenario, they want to completely reinvent the narrative. They grudgingly accept the layout but nobody ever likes the picture on the front.

Result: the horse is a completely different colour.

And there you have it. You turn your creation free to roam the desert of stakeholder scrutiny, take a couple of weeks off, and start the whole thing again.