Thursday, August 01, 2013

The Beauty of Staff Papers

I learned how to write staff papers as a dashing young staff officer assigned to the headquarters of a major Army command in Washington, D.C. Due to the guidance of a savvy major, I became quite good at it and came to appreciate the process.

Before a proposed action went to the commanding general for final decision, it would be carefully analyzed in the staff paper itself and then the paper would be sent to the directors of departments that had a potential interest in the decision so they could give their opinions. If they agreed, they'd usually just sign off on the proposed action although they might attach additional analysis. If they disagreed, they would note that and attach a paper giving the reasons why. [Extreme woe descended on any staff paper author who made an end-run on a department that should have been consulted.]

By the time the staff paper landed on the general's desk, that one document provided a clear picture of the pros and cons as seen by key players. Although often there was informal lobbying - and wise staff officers learned to do that before the initial paper was written so various concerns could be blended into the proposal - the overall process was done with few meetings. The caliber of thought in the attached comments was usually quite high and certainly much higher than the rambling discussions I've seen in many public and private sector organizations.

This didn't mean that the chief decision maker wouldn't call people in for further discussion. That might happen but the process's unspoken message was that you'd better do an excellent job of making your case in the paper or in the attachments because there was no guarantee that you'd get a chance to make it again.

It is a great process. More organizations should use it.

I'll be writing about the format later,


Dan in Philly said...

That kind of of thing is what it's all about. Once you learn to write that way, it's almost impossible for you to do bad work.

Michael Wade said...


It is invaluable.