The Doctrine of Completed Staff Work

The following memorandum has been reproduced countless times by military and civilian organizations since World War II and has become a widely accepted definition of what effective staff members do.  The original memorandum was drafted for the Provost Marshal General, U.S. Army, by Colonel Archer J. Lerch, Deputy Provost General.  It was published in the January 29, 1942 issue of the Army and Navy Journal.


  1. The doctrine of “completed staff work” is a doctrine of this office.

  2. “Completed Staff Work” is the 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 piece-meal 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 effects 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 your chief what he ought 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 by simply 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:

    • a. The chief is protected from half-baked ideas, voluminous memoranda, and immature oral presentments.

    • b. The staff officer who has a real idea to sell is enabled more readily to find a market.

  7. 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 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.”


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