Will Bachman: Soon after I arrived as a junior officer on my submarine, the engineer officer, the department head, sat me down and explained to me this concept of completed staff work. The concept is just as applicable to the civilian world, but not every workplace has someone like my engineer to explain how it works.
Hey, welcome to Unleashed, the show that explores how to thrive as an independent professional. Unleashed is produced by Umbrex, and I’m your host, Will Bachman. On my submarine, my first job, I was the reactor controls assistant and it was my first division officer job after arriving on board. We were in the process of updating, coming up with a new revision of our division’s pre underway checklist. Now I’d brought a draft of this document to the engineer and it had a few typos, and some open questions, and I thought he’d look at it and give you some feedback.
The enge explained to me that when he brought the document to the captain or when he eventually would, it needed to be flawless and ready for the captain’s signature. Similarly, when I brought the document to him, it was my job to work with my chief to do the research, to run down all those loose ends and figure it out, and to bring him a document without typos, a document that was properly referenced and properly formatted and ready to sign.
If, the big if, if there were questions that I had been unable to resolve, that was okay, I could come to him for help. After all, he did have more years of experience and he might know the answer, but in those rare cases I should do the following. Document what I had done to try to get to an answer. List all the sources that I had already consulted. If there was a couple of options that I’d come up with, then I should list them both.
I should have the pros and cons, and the reference [inaudible 00:01:57] reach and so that all he had to do was choose between them, or, list the potential next steps that I needed his permission for. Maybe his permission to go and talk to the reactor controls assistant on another boat or go talk to squadron. It might be more work for me, but it was less work for him, and he had three other division officers to oversee plus a lot of other stuff to do, and he couldn’t do all of our work for all of us. This was a bit of a wake up call for me and it was, I got to admit, not the most pleasant one.
In high school, if I had a question, I was expected to ask the teacher. In college, if I had a question, they had office hours I was expected to ask the professor. Now here I was in the real world and I was being told if I had a question, it was my job, in fact, I was getting paid to figure it out and come to my boss with the answer. The enge further explained not to come to him with a problem.
It was my job when problems were identified to come to him and report, “Here’s an issue that I’ve identified.” If the corrective action is something I could do on my own, I should do it and say, “Hey, this came up and it’s fixed and this is what we did”, or, if the corrective action required some resources or permission I was to come and say, “Enge, here are the courses of action that we’ve considered. Here’s what we recommend. Here is why, we request your permission to proceed.”
Now, this applied to like non-casualties, non-emergencies, right? Of course, if I’m on watch, anything unusual or out of spec, I had to report to him immediately. That’s like a different thing, I’m talking about staff work here running my division. That was my introduction to the idea of completed staff work.
Recently, I just googled that term, the term just kind of popped back in my head. I come across this pretty great memo written by Brigadier General George A. Rehm, Executive Officer for the G-3 operation section for MacArthur’s headquarters in the southwest Pacific area during World War II. I found it on the website of Todd Rehm on Todd’s website, Coup de Todd, and I’ll include a link to that blog post in the show notes. The link has a photo of the actual memo, and I love the fact that it is classified as restricted. I guess we don’t want the enemy to find out about completed staff work.
I would have liked to receive this memo when I showed up on board my boat and I think any graduate starting his or her first job in the real world could benefit. I’m going to read it in its entirety, and if you think that you know someone who might benefit from completed staff work, perhaps you can share this episode with them.
Here it is. Number one, the doctrine of completed staff work is a doctrine of this office. Number two, 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 effects an established one when presented to the commander for approval or disapproval must be worked out in a finished form.
Number three, 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 that impulse. You will succumb to it only if you do not know your job.
Number four, do not wear 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 replaced 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, he will ask for it.
The completed staff work theory 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.
Number six, 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. Furthermore, it accomplishes two things, A, the commander is protected from half baked ideas, voluminous memos and immature oral presentations. B, the staff member who has a real idea to sell is enabled more readily to find a market.
Number seven, when you have finished your completed staff work for 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 it’s being right? If the answer is no, take it back and work it over because it is not yet completed staff work.
Tank you to General Rehm for that memo which I think is pretty awesome. I’d love to hear about your experiences either learning to do completed staff work or training a new hire on the concept. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. If you visit our website, umbrex.com/unleashed, you can sign up for our weekly email where you’ll get a transcript of this episode and every episode plus some bonus features. It would be awesome if you’d consider sharing this with a friend or on social media. Thanks for listening.