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Completed Staff Work: Making Recommendations vs. Asking for Approval

When I was introduced to the concept of Completed Staff Work, I felt like I had been handed a secret management technique. The idea simply exploded how I thought of my work as an engineering manager.

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engineering management seriesThis is the tenth in a series of posts that address how New Relic does engineering management in the real world, written by various New Relic software engineers and managers. See all the posts in the series here.

When I was introduced to the concept of Completed Staff Work, I felt like I had been handed a secret management technique. I had been a manager for several years and never heard of it, so it felt like a big secret when I did. And the idea simply exploded how I thought of my work as an engineering manager.

So, let me share with you one of the most powerful management concepts I’ve encountered: Completed Staff Work. A standard for determining whether or not you’ve done enough work on a problem, the concept of Completed Staff Work involves useful techniques to

  • Assume more autonomy for your team
  • Prevent going back and forth endlessly on topics, and
  • Carve out greater responsibilities for yourself.

An Example of Typical Staff Work

New Relic has a couple of engineers located in a coworking space in a city in Europe. They were unhappy with the location—it had no windows, and they said it felt too tight. I talked about the issue with our facilities person, and he quickly located another location for us. But to make it happen he needed email approval from my manager.

I composed an email to my manager that read something like this:

We’ve located a larger location. Their current office is cramped and has no window. The new office has a window, and enough room to fit 3 or 4 desks. The team looked at it and said it was perfect for their needs.  

If you approve, reply to this email with approval for the additional monthly expenditure of $X a month.

That seems pretty straightforward, right? But it’s worth thinking for a moment about what is incomplete about this work—why this is incomplete staff work.

Incomplete Staff Work

My work was not complete, because my manager still had questions:

  • We have another office in that area. What would the impact be of merging the two offices?
  • What is our company policy for coworking spaces? Do we have some standards, so that we’re not treating some locations poorly and others better?
  • Will we need more room to grow in this office? What are our future plans there?
  • How does this space compare to other coworking spaces we’re using? How much space do they have now, and what would help them to do their best work?

What typically happens with Incomplete Staff Work is the Great Going Back and Forth: Lots of questions flying around, lots of time spent figuring things out. If there are multiple levels of approval, Incomplete Staff Work can be incredibly tiresome.

A couple of takeaways:

  • That back and forth may indicate that I haven’t thought about things completely enough. Usually, the problem is that I haven’t considered the bigger picture: how a particular change would affect the rest of the company.
  • The other problem is that I hadn’t really dug into the important details. When I asked the facilities person how much space they recommended, it came to light that the engineers had half that recommendation per person. That provided a compelling argument for improving their location.

What Is Completed Staff Work?

Completed Staff Work is when you present your plan to a decision-maker, and they can just give it a thumbs up to approve it. If they say, “sounds great, do it!” then it’s Completed Staff Work.

One way of thinking about Completed Staff Work is this: Are you providing your best recommendation? Is it something you would stake your professional reputation on? If it isn’t, then it’s not Completed Staff Work.

Completed Staff Work Flattens Hierarchy

As humans, we are used to asking our boss to make the decisions. Many organizations actually discourage people from providing plans and decisions for ratification, because it’s acting more like an equal to your manager, and organizations typically, if unconsciously, like to reinforce hierarchy.

In this case, once I noticed that my manager had a lot of questions, I put together a more complete plan with a lot more context. This required me to ask more questions of our facilities person and do more legwork. I thought about the questions my manager might have, which helped me think about the problem more holistically.

Doing this deeper work made me feel like I owned the solution more deeply. There was a switch in my relationship with my manager. Instead of me asking him for approval, I was making a recommendation that had everything he needed to know it was a good choice. I knew it was Completed Staff Work after I had done that extra work because I knew it was a good decision—one that I would stake my reputation on. But it was proven to be Completed Staff Work when he not only gave it a thumbs up, but passed it to his manager for approval, and his manager approved it without comment. Complete!

It’s much more useful to bring your intention and best thinking to the conversation, rather than relying on your manager to decide whether something is a good idea or not. This inverts the way you relate to your manager—and to me, that’s the real power of Completed Staff Work.

Completed Staff Work Is a Structure to Empower Teams

Completed Staff Work became prominent in the U.S. Army in the 1940s. Although derived from a hierarchical, written process, the principles are broadly useful and can be adapted to many situations.

Completed Staff Work empowers teams to have more local autonomy. Instead of relying on the manager to decide on the best course of action, the team members are bringing their best solutions to the manager. The manager may provide clarification or guidance when they’re missing something, but over time the team will develop a habit of solving problems in a more organizationally aware way. This leads to them needing less meddling from above, and having more local decision-making.

Completed Staff Work Can Be Quite Simple

The simplest form of Completed Staff Work is simply stating an intended course of action in the form of “I intend to do X.” That establishes and takes ownership of the course of action you intend to follow. If the decision-maker has questions about that course of action, they can ask.

But many problems are more complicated. For example, you can’t create a huge shift in the company’s strategy merely by saying, “I intend to do X,” because so many people may need to get on board with the new strategy. That’s when it can make more sense to write it down, and have many conversations to get people aligned on it. Both approaches are a type of Completed Staff Work.

Completed Staff Work Can Be Iterative

hands building puzzleSometimes people interpret Completed Staff Work to mean that you shouldn’t show work that is in progress, revealing it only when you’ve perfected it. But the goal of Completed Staff Work isn’t to do everything as one chunk, or to produce a work artifact. The goal is to do the work in a way that has been thought about deeply enough that your stakeholders should be able to accept your recommendation, and know that it is a good decision.

It’s often a good idea to talk with your decision-makers as you’re putting together your plan. Ask them what a good plan will look like, and run the outline by them. If you need their help, ask. That’s what they’re there for.

To make Completed Staff Work more iterative, I’ve found it useful to approach it as a set of smaller pieces of staff work. Let’s say our team’s section of the website is performing worse each week. Here’s what I might say to my manager:

  • “The performance on the site has been getting worse and worse, and I intend to put together a plan to address it. Sound good?” This can be a good time to talk about the parameters of the work you’re doing.
  • If the problem is simple, I can stop there. But for more complex problems, I may need them to agree with the outline of the plan, and then go actually do the work of putting together the full plan. I may have to talk to a lot of people to figure out the best thing to do. And if the problem is really difficult, I can give my best approximation of a plan, and ask for help completing it.
  • After having those conversations and doing that homework, I’ll either verbally tell my manager the plan and make sure they agree with it, or show them a written version: “Our plan to address the recent site performance issues is to set up a dashboard in our office area, and to set up the New Relic performance alert email to go to the whole team. We’re also planning to focus on fixing three performance issues next week. Sound good?”

If you get a “looks great, go for it,” then you know you’ve done Completed Staff Work! But you’ve also done it iteratively, and your manager has the chance along the way to say, “No, don’t work on that, because somebody else is actually taking care of that right now.”

What’s Better Than Completed Staff Work?

When I started as a manager, my colleagues recommended a book called Turn the Ship Around: A True Story of Turning Followers Into Leaders. It tells the story of the USS Santa Fe, a submarine with one of the poorest performing crews in the fleet. Captain David Marquet switched the ship’s culture from the leader telling people what to do, to individuals sharing their thinking and making decisions themselves.

Marquet points the way to something even better than Completed Staff Work. He does this by describing a progression in how people talk, from being a follower to being a leader:

  • Tell me what to do
  • I think…
  • I recommend…
  • I request permission to…
  • I intend to…
  • I’ve done…
  • I’ve been doing…

Completed Staff Work is a structure to get people to the “I recommend,” “I request permission to,” or “I intend to” phases. But you don’t have to stop there. If your team members are doing Completed Staff Work, you should consider whether they should have to ask you to “thumbs up” it at all.

Pushing responsibilities farther down the spectrum leads to better results, as long as the people involved have the skills and support to succeed. One way to evaluate whether they are ready is to monitor how they’re doing with their existing staff work. If their work typically just requires a “sounds great,” consider giving them more authority to make those decisions without you.

On the other hand, situations in which you aren’t able to give the go-ahead represent a coaching opportunity. What did they miss and why did they miss it? Did they lack a key skill or background? Do they need more support or time to think about the problem? Did you give them the right context to be successful? It’s a great opportunity for learning.

I hope you find Completed Staff Work as useful as I have. I welcome your feedback: @JadeRubick on Twitter.

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Published at DZone with permission of Jade Rubick, DZone MVB. See the original article here.

Opinions expressed by DZone contributors are their own.

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