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"Completed Staff Work"

by David Brock on March 16th, 2008
I was having a conversation with a client, the CEO of a Fortune 100 organization, and he cited something I hear from many leaders and executives, “My people come to me with problems, they don’t come to me with solutions.”
There was more to it, but the comment reminded my of something a manager/mentor in IBM gave me many years ago. It was a short document called, “The Doctrine Of Completed Staff Work.” I’ve traced it to two sources, Brigadier General G.E.R. Smith, of the Canadeian Army (08/09/1943) and Brigadier General George A. Rehm, US Army, 1942-1943.
Some may be put off by the military rigidity of this paper, I find it a useful tool to remind professionals and leaders about the importance of “doing your homework.” In today’s world, where speed seems to overcome quality of thinking, the article is a provocative reminder.
It is reprinted below:
The Doctrine Of Completed Staff Work

Completed staff work is the study of a problem, and presentation of a solution, by a staff member, in such form that all that remains to be done on the part of the commander is to indicate 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 commander in a piecemeal fashion.

It is your duty as a staff member to work out the details. You should not consult your commander in the determination of those details, no matter how perplexing they may be. You may and should consult other staff members. The product, whether it involves the pronouncement of a new policy or affects an established one, when presented to the commander for approval or disapproval, must be worked out in a finished form.
The impulse, which often comes to the inexperienced staff member, to ask the commander what to do, recurs more often when the problem is difficult. It is accompanied by a feeling of mental frustration. It is easy to ask the commander what to do, and it appears too easy for the commander to answer. Resist the impulse. You will succumb to it only if you do not know your job.
It is your job to advise your commander what she or he ought to do, not to ask what you ought to do. The commander 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 commander merely approves or disapproves.
Do not worry your commander with long explanations and memos. Writing a memo to your commander does not constitute completed staff work. But writing a memo for your commander to send to someone else does. Your views should be placed before the commander in finished form so that the commander can make them his or her views simply by signing the document. In most instances, completed staff work results in a single document prepared for the signature of the commander without accompanying comment. If the proper result is reached, the commander will usually recognize it at once. If the commander wants comment or explanation, she or he will ask for it.
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 an excuse for shifting to the commander the burden of formulating the action.
The completed staff work theory may result in more work for the staff member but it results in more freedom for the commander. This is as it should be. Further, it accomplishes two things:
  • The commander is protected from half-baked ideas, voluminous memos, and immature oral presentations.
  • The staff member who has a real idea to sell is enabled more readily to find a market.
When you have finished your completed staff work the final test is this:
If you were the commander would you be willing to sign the paper you have prepared, and stake your professional reputation on its being right?
If the answer is no, take it back and work it over, because it is not yet completed staff work.
  1. kathy burgess permalink

    i wonder if you can offer any advice on copyright of the completed staff work article. it is a wonderful article and i used it for our office newsletter buried within our internal irs infrastructure to which no one but us have access. i was actually made aware of it by another irs office who used it in their training material. it was my first newsletter and the articles all over the internet. you know how it goes someone always has to shoot the messenger; so i wonder technically did i do anything wrong? i’d love to be able to tell upper mgmt. no problem-o; just read and enjoy!! thanks in advance, kathy

  2. Mr Brock,

    Thank you for reprinting this. One of the most memorable experiences of my early career (IBM in the mid 90’s) was being given this very piece to read.

    A coworker who had already been at the company for 20+ years saw me struggling a bit with direction on a project and thought it would help. It did immensely.

    Cheers to you.

    Erik Hlavaty

  3. For many years before I retired ( recently) I had a sign on my office door. “Don’t Come to me With A Problem Unless You Have A Solution”

    It worked because it made people think.. and not look for a crutch..

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