Has the quality of our work suffered in the digital workplace?  

With digitization comes a world of research at our digital fingertips, increased collaboration opportunities, automagical spelling and grammar correction and instant sharing for review and approvals. 

We should be getting better with all this digital help. But just the opposite seems to be happening.

The Doctrine of Completed Staff Work 

The genesis of ”completed staff work” most likely comes from a memorandum released during World War II. It became a widely accepted definition of how effective staff members should operate. The original source of the memorandum is unclear, but over countless iterations, the message remained essentially the same:

“Completed staff work is the study of a problem and provision of a solution by a staff person in such form that all that remains to be done by the boss is to give approval or disapproval of the completed staff action.”

I am a believer in this principle, and in the essence — if not the literal interpretation — of its supporting tenets. 

Here are my rules for completed staff work in the digital age:

Rule #1 The one with crowdsourcing: It is my responsibility to formulate what ought to be done, not to ask what I ought to do. 

Instant messaging (IM) is a great tool. However, IM ambushes are not off the record ways to build a position. Crowdsourcing should be used to enhance recommendations and work products, not replace cogent thought.

Rule #2 The one where Siri takes my job: It is my job to study and author a complete, yet concise work product for the intended audience. Endless email threads are neither complete nor concise. Googling and asking Siri or Alexa are reasonable tactics, not a complete research effort.

Rule #3 The one where half-baked ideas replace polished artifacts: My digital work product must be well-considered and properly presented, whether I am readying for final review or preparing to share for collaboration. Consulting with colleagues is not precluded by the theory of completed staff work, and indeed is a well-advised approach to a quality work product. 

However, Google docs or other digital drafts should be well constructed and not just random composites of half-baked ideas.  

Over the years, completed staff work has gained acceptance by management theorists and performance practitioners, not only in the military but across civilian and commercial organizations, and has received attention as an important precept for high-performing teams. 

High Performance Teams

How does the doctrine of completed staff work — or at least my derived rules — relate to high performance teams in the digital era?  

Digital work technologies can be major contributors to high performance teams, helping them achieve superior business results. Consider these characteristics of high-performing teams:

  • Everybody on the team is highly focused on and working toward the same goal
  • People have deep trust in the team's purpose and feel free to express ideas
  • Team members are clear on how to work together and how to accomplish tasks

So many of our teams these days cross geographic and departmental, even company, boundaries. Digital can help focus the team by breaking down barriers and creating a virtual team workspace to share ideas and accomplish tasks together.  

I’ve written before about what Gartner has identified as “silo-busting technologies.” It included them as one of the top 10 technologies for 2017 driving the digital workplace: “Silo-busters are tools that transcend organizational boundaries. They enable teams to solve problems and generate ideas across work silos — a longstanding challenge in many organizations.”  

Digital Distraction

Digital may indeed offer the speed and power to turbocharge our virtual teams. However, nothing can destroy focus faster than “digital distraction.” The New York Times article, "How to Deal with Digital Distractions," takes a look at learning and performance in today’s digital world and asks the question:

Learning Opportunities

“[When] we live in a world of screens, where digital distractions contend with our need to learn, is multitasking a good idea?"

The answer is apparently No. Research into how humans interact with technology, with studies of people juggling different cognitive tasks, has found that, “Basically, people are bad at it. They are actually moving in and out of different things quickly, not working simultaneously, and nothing gets enough attention.”

In fact, the article maintains that “Web surfing is the new secondhand smoke …. Even sitting next to someone multitasking on a laptop could affect learning and performance.”

Digital R*E*S*P*E*C*T

At the end of the day, respect for other people and their time should lie at the foundation of how we work.

This remains true in the digital workplace, where the tools that enable our productivity and the completion of a quality work product, can also offer the temptation to choose speed over considered thought and clear communication. 

It is especially important to remember this because, as the completed staff work doctrine tells us, “the more difficult an assignment or problem, the more there is a tendency to present in a piecemeal or rough draft fashion.” 

In my opinion digital encourages this tendency by being far too easy to invoke. Leveraging digital for perspective, advice, insight and review from others is important and warranted, but should not preclude due diligence and careful formulation. 

Who has not received a roughly conceived email, IM or shared Google doc with the ending phrase “Thoughts?” 

This is exactly what we need to resist. Though it may seem a disciplined process will take longer, in truth it will be a shorter path to meaningful results.  

No Excuse for Sloppy Work

Accept that completed staff work will require more effort on our part, even more so in the digital age, but it is worth it! It requires the necessary considered time when we are the owner, but also promises far less non-value added work or wasted time when we are the contributor or the recipient.  

I am convinced that digital can boost creativity and collaboration and the quality of our work product, as long as we don’t use it as an excuse for sloppy and incomplete work.  


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