Random PR Thoughts

The Doctrine of Completed Staff Work

soldier typing

In my last post (http://wp.me/p35ZJ7-63 ), I included a link to a document that explains the concept of “completed staff work.” But I thought I would post the text here to make it easier. I am told that the original version of this essay appeared in the Army-Navy Journal in the early 1940s. It referred to “staff officers,” “commanding officers” and “typewriters,” and made no acknowledgement that women might ever be in the workforce. The version below has been updated and de-militarized.

After you read it, you can ask yourself, “Am I providing completed staff work?” And just as important, “Am I receiving completed staff work?”  Just in time for mid-year performance evaluations.


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 boss 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 boss in a piecemeal fashion.

It is your duty as a staff member to work out the details. You should not consult your boss 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 boss for approval or disapproval, must be worked out in a finished form.

The impulse to ask the boss what to do, which often comes to the inexperienced staff member, recurs more often when the problem is difficult. It is accompanied by a feeling of mental frustration. It is easy to ask the boss what to do, and it appears so easy for the boss 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 boss what she or he ought to do, not to ask your boss what you ought to do. The boss 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 boss merely approves or disapproves.

Do not worry your boss with long explanations and memos. Writing a memo to your boss does not constitute completed staff work. But writing a memo for your boss to send to someone else does. Your views should be placed before the boss in finished form so that the boss 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 boss without accompanying comment. If the proper result is reached, the boss will usually recognize it at once. If the boss 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 boss 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 boss. This is as it should be. Further, it accomplishes two things:

  • The boss is protected from half-baked ideas, voluminous memos, and immature oral presentations
  • The staff member who has a real idea to sell can more readily find a market.

When you have finished your work the final test is this:

If you were the boss 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.

Categories: Random PR Thoughts

6 replies »

  1. One of my all-time favorites of your many lessons in management. I remember this well from years ago.

  2. The brilliance of this guidance is in its simplicity. Your job is to provide your boss with answers, and do whatever it takes (collaboration, research, etc.) below his/her level to get those answers. Then, turn nothing in to him/her that they can’t simply sign and move forward. Great post, again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s