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Leadership Lesson 23 – Completed Staff Work

By: Curt Stowers

Sometimes you come across a timeless piece of information—something that's as applicable today as it was the day it was originally published. "The Doctrine of Completed Staff Work" is one of these gems. It appeared in the Army-Navy Journal in 1942. However, its actual origin is in question. One thing’s for certain, though: it's been around for years and it is incredibly insightful.

The Doctrine of Completed Staff Work

Army-Navy Journal - January 1942

The following interesting and instructive paper is being distributed to officers of the Provost Marshal General's office and school:

  1. The doctrine of "completed staff work" is a doctrine of this office.
  2. "Completed Staff Work" is a study of a problem and presentation of a solution, by a staff officer, in such form that all that remains to be done on the part of the head of the staff division, or the commander, is to indicate his approval or disapproval of the completed action. The words "completed action" are emphasized because the more difficult the problem is, the more the tendency is to present the problem to the chief in piecemeal fashion. It is your duty as a staff officer to work out the details. You should not consult your chief in the determination of those details, no matter how perplexing they may be. You may and should consult other staff officers. The product, whether it involves the pronouncement of a new policy or affects an established one, should, when presented to the chief for approval or disapproval, be worked out in finished form.
  3. The impulse, which often comes to the inexperienced staff officer to ask the chief what to do, recurs more often when the problem is difficult. It is accompanied by a feeling of mental frustration. It is so easy to ask the chief what to do, and it appears so easy for him to answer. Resist that impulse. You will succumb to it only if you do not know your job. It is your job to advise the chief what to do, not to ask him what you ought to do. He needs answers, not questions. Your job is to study, write, restudy, and rewrite until you have evolved a single proposed action—the best one of all you have considered. Your chief merely approves or disapproves.
  4. Do not worry your chief with long explanations and memoranda. Writing a memorandum to your chief does not constitute completed staff work, but writing a memorandum for your chief to send to someone else does. Your views should be placed before him in finished form so that he can make them his views simply by signing his name. In most instances, completed staff work results in a single document prepared for the signature of the chief, without accompanying comment. If the proper result is reached, the chief will usually recognize it at once. If he wants comment or explanation, he will ask for it.
  5. The theory of completed staff work does not preclude a "rough draft" but the rough draft must not be a half-baked idea. It must be complete in every respect except that it lacks the requisite number of copies and need not be neat. But a rough draft must not be used as an excuse for shifting to the chief the burden of formulating the action.
  6. The "completed staff work" theory may result in more work for the staff officer, but it results in more freedom for the chief. This is as it should be. Further, it accomplishes two things:
    • The chief is protected from half-baked ideas, voluminous memoranda, and immature oral presentments.
    • The staff officer who has a real idea to sell is enabled to more readily find a market.
  1. When you have finished your "completed staff work" the final test is this: If you were the chief, would you be willing to sign the paper you have prepared—and to stake your professional reputation on its being right? If the answer is in the negative, take it back and work it over because it is not yet "completed staff work."

For close to twenty years I have been carrying a copy of "The Doctrine of Completed Staff Work" with me. I've read it literally 1,000s of time and shared it with 100's of people. It's that good.

Rule #23 - Enforce the principles of the doctrine of completed staff work.

There is one caveat with the document:

You need to reinforce with your team that you ARE available and interested in "brainstorming" with them at the right times. Unfortunately, I shared the document with one co-worker and did not make this point. Several months later, I received feedback that I was "closed" to new ideas and did not want to "hear anything," but rather simply wanted to give instructions and get back "what I wanted." They cited this document!

After re-reading with this lens, I can see where some folks might be inclined to interpret the guidance extremely literally. With that in mind, I've always shared the document with a form of a disclaimer:

  • "I've found this document to be extremely helpful to me and others. I use it as a litmus test for the assignments that I'm given; and, as a reminder that my boss has his/her challenges that he/she is facing. While I don't think you should take every word of the document literally, it is a great framework that you can use on just about any task you are assigned."

Since I've tossed in this disclaimer, I've never received anything but positive feedback about the document.

ACTION ITEM 23 - (i) Print out a copy of "The Doctrine of Completed Staff Work" and review it daily for the next month, and (ii) share the document with your team.


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