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I recently posted a number of content pieces that explained ‘The Principles Of War’, a set of broad and overarching guidelines that acted as a filtering system for the operational and strategic efforts we conducted within the Military. In response to these posts many asked me to collate the information in a central source so that they might apply more reasonably to their businesses and teams.

There is no point in providing a set of principles, guidelines or considerations unless we build a context behind them that establishes relevance.  This is my shot at doing that for the Principles of War in a corporate context.

The Principles of War are a set of guiding principles that act as considerations for military planning and strategy.  It has become apparent that there is some utility in using them in the corporate environment.  In this article, we look at the analysis and interpretation of the principles with that concept in mind.

Simply put, the principles exist to help frame ‘how’ to think and not ‘what’ to think.  This means that we are free to explore whatever is needed to solve the problem.  However, we must be careful to balance our priorities and resources to enable the best possible outcome.

These are the principles in order but not in importance.  Each plan or initiative will see a different prioritisation of each of these principles in order to achieve a different effects or outcome.

  1. The selection and maintenance of the aim
  2. Concentration of force
  3. Cooperation
  4. Economy of effort
  5. Security
  6. Offensive action
  7. Surprise
  8. Flexibility
  9. Sustainment
  10. Maintenance of morale

The situation will see each principle being utilised differently and should be weighted depending on the circumstances, what needs to be achieved and the priorities set out by the planner.  As an example, when developing a concept for client focused service (aim) we may need to bring in another organisation to cover an identified need (cooperation) which we could only build ourselves at a much higher cost (economy of effort).  This joint venture may necessitate an exchange of restricted information (security) to ensure the team is established, trust is built, and we can be demonstrating our ability to adjust to our client’s needs (flexibility/aim).

For this scenario, the client focused service has primacy.  It may look something like this.

Note – ‘the doctrine’ comments are excerpts from Land Warfare Doctrine 1 – The Fundamentals of Land Power 2014 – The Principles of War

THE SELECTION AND MAINTENANCE OF THE AIM

The doctrine – Once the aim has been decided, all effort must continually be directed towards its attainment so long as this is possible, and every plan or action must be tested by its bearing on the aim.

“ Times and conditions change so rapidly that we must keep our aim constantly focused on the future ” – Walt Disney

In broad terms, it means to keep the object/ end in mind at every level of the operation. The creation of the aim (end state/ outcome) takes time, energy, and some serious thought. This is true for military and corporate action.

When selecting and maintaining the aim:

  1. Ensure it aligns with your values
  2. Communicate it simply and effectively to those involved
  3. Reinforce the aim at all levels
  4. Resist the urge to ad hoc stray from the aim
  5. Maintain open lines of communication with key stakeholders
  6. Test any changes against its impact on the overall aim
  7. Bring subject matter experts in for objectivity

Know where you are heading before you start. It allows you and your team to align to a common outcome and make decisions as well as maintain momentum in your absence. From CEO to a jobseeker, selecting and maintaining your aim provides the purpose to make sound decisions.

CONCENTRATION OF FORCE

The doctrine – Concentration of force is the ability to apply decisive military force at the right place, at the right time and in such a way as to achieve a decisive result.

“ The talent of the strategist is to identify the decisive point and to concentrate everything on it, removing forces from secondary fronts and ignoring lesser objectives. ” – Carl von Clausewitz

To be successful we need to be able to concentrate our capabilities, at the appropriate time and place, to achieve success. This means knowing what we have, what it can do and where it is going to have the most impact.  Then doing it.  This principle is about be deliberate and even more so, decisive.

In a corporate context this would mean:

  1. Having the funding to support a new project or capitalise on an opportunity
  2. Aligning staff, capital and messaging at a key point to achieve and outcome
  3. Defining areas that are irrelevant for expenditure
  4. Having a surge capability to reinforce success
  5. Knowing the strategy and communicating key locations and times for action
  6. Making decisions within the time to be effective
  7. Building alignment, momentum and energy to decisive points in the plan

We cannot spend everything on anything.  Prioritise those actions that will have the highest impact and align to the strategy.  Then build up the required resources, staff and capital to seize an opportunity.  This is a deliberate and defined process.

COOPERATION

The doctrine – Cooperation within joint combined arms interagency teams, allies and coalition partners is vital for success. Only in this way can the resources and energies of each be harnessed so as to achieve success.

” It is the long history of humankind (and animal kind, too) that those who learned to collaborate and improvise most effectively have prevailed. ” – Charles Darwin

Vital to success is the ability to bring together multiple agencies to achieve an overall effect.  What this means in a practical sense is to build teams that cover each other’s gaps.  We cannot know or be great at everything, so we join forces with others to create something better than our own individual capability.

What cooperation looks like:

  1. Admitting that you are not strong in an area
  2. Aligning with a team that is
  3. Leaving your ego at the door and being prepared to be led depending on the priority
  4. Acknowledging a greater purpose
  5. Sharing information freely and in a timely fashion
  6. Synchronising the efforts in space, time, and priority to create the best impact
  7. Putting the team needs first
  8. Protecting each other and representing them in areas where they don’t represent themselves

Combining efforts takes a great deal of trust, authenticity, and respect.  It may be for a short period or an enduring strategic partnership.  The vulnerabilities of your joined team must be protected at all costs.

ECONOMY OF EFFORT

The doctrine – Economy of effort is the prudent allocation and application of resources to achieve the desired results.

“ The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency. ” – Bill Gates

Economy of effort.  This principle deals with ‘playing smart’ and making the full use of available resources. It is in this space that we create a balance in priorities and what we can realistically achieve and sustain.  Appropriate allocation must be nested with the strategy as they are finite.  Priority allocation must go to the main effort that and supporting efforts will be created to enable it.

In a corporate setting this might look like:

  1. Priority resourcing to finding new opportunities
  2. Supporting effort in retaining and consolidated current projects
  3. Reserve resources segregated for identified contingencies

A changing environment requires adaptability and if the main effort/ supporting efforts evolve then the priority of resourcing will change.  At all times maintaining your economy of effort must be nested with the other principles like sustainment.  Appropriate allocation of effort can mean the difference between success and failure.

SECURITY

The doctrine – Security is concerned with measures taken by a command to protect itself from espionage, sabotage, subversion, observation, or surprise. It is of basic concern during any campaign or operation. Security is required to operate effectively with minimal interference from the enemy.

“ Protection and security are only valuable if they do not cramp life excessively. ” – Carl Jung

To be able to continue to operate and/ or obtain opportunities we must first ensure that our own capabilities are as secure as required by the strategy.  Now in times of need, sacrificing security for speed may be that strategy but it must be a planned, deliberate, and precise decision.  Offensive strategies can also be a method of security as we stay mobile, maintain momentum and aren’t targetable.

In a corporate context, this could mean:

  1. Securing your information, strategies and plans from your competitors
  2. Ensuring you have consolidated resources to mitigate uncertainties
  3. Future proof your employee relevance by developing them
  4. Maintain quick and deliberate decision-making cycles to stay ahead of the competition
  5. Securing financial viability by maintaining cashflow
  6. Diversifying to create redundancy to secure operational viability
  7. Mitigating priority risks to reduce critical events

Security of our businesses in physical, financial, strategic, operational and resource-based decisions is important to enable us to operate effectively with minimal disturbance.  This principle allows us to analyse risk and mitigate it before crisis occurs.

OFFENSIVE ACTION

The doctrine – Military forces take offensive action to gain and retain the initiative. This has often taken the form of building momentum and fueling it to snowball the opposition. In most circumstances, such action is essential to the achievement of victory.

“ A little deed done very well is better than a mighty plan kept on paper, undone. Wishes don’t change the world; it’s actions that do this business! ” – Israelmore Ayivor

We need an offensive action (read, a bias for action in this case) to either regain or maintain initiative, or in a corporate context; maintain your competitive advantage, be first to market, launch on a project or create and seize opportunities.  This action must be deliberate and decisive and must be driven towards achieving the established aim.

To effectively implement offensive actions, we should:

  1. Empower people who have a bias for action (as long the strategy supports it)
  2. Consolidate and make use of adequate resources
  3. Ensure the action is sustainable to the end
  4. Be linked to other key stakeholders to support
  5. Use an element of surprise
  6. Make effective use of available resources
  7. Be deliberate and decisive
  8. Be oriented towards the overarching aim or strategy
  9. Be balanced with security of our own capabilities

In a military context this may necessitate combat however, it can also be the use of information actions and achieving influence as well.  Overall, it is important to understand the importance of having a bias for action as it creates momentum, speed in decision making and advantage over your competitors.  This bias will ultimately allow you to create opportunities not just be reactive to them.

SURPRISE

The doctrine – Surprise can produce results out of all proportion to the effort expended and is closely related to security.

“ In conflict, straightforward actions generally lead to engagement, surprising actions generally lead to victory ” – Sun Tzu

In a military term this might require deception or simply being able to disperse and concentrate rapidly, concealing your activity, appearing weak when you are strong etc.  The idea is to be where you are unexpected or where you are expected at a time when you are not, in forces that weren’t planned for.  In a corporate context, this may mean the release of a new strategy, software, market entry, product release in a time and manner that is not expected so that your competitors can’t mimic or get the inside track.

To achieve successful surprise:

  1. Be where you are not expected to be
  2. Appear vulnerable when you are in fact strong
  3. Appear strong when you are weak
  4. Approach markets from different methods
  5. Create strong allies who enable you to scale and disperse rapidly
  6. Know your environment in detail
  7. Understand the importance of timing
  8. Have a strategy and a plan
  9. Show the minimum amount of activity in an area people are expecting so that they don’t know what your actual aim is. It is called a feint.
  10. Be adaptable and ready to respond to your changing environment

This list is ultimately endless but, in a nutshell, utilising surprise not only keeps you and your team excited about new plans, it also enables you to capitalise on opportunities before others know you are even looking at them.

FLEXIBILITY

The doctrine – Flexibility is the capacity to adapt plans to take account of unforeseen circumstances to ensure success in the face of friction, unexpected resistance, or setbacks, or to capitalise on unexpected opportunities.

“ It is not the strongest of the species that survives, nor the most intelligent. It is the one that is most adaptable to change. ”  – Charles Darwin

This is your ability to adapt to an ever-changing environment (your AQ).  I would also include your resilience to setbacks, ability to deal with friction, chaos and complexity and to make decisions in uncertainty.  The aim of flexibility is to maintain dynamic decision making across multiple lines of operation and still be synchronised.

To build flexibility:

  1. Identify and communicate the overall aim
  2. Understand your environment
  3. Build a redundancy or reserve of resources
  4. Empower decision making at the lowest level
  5. Simplify communication
  6. Provide realistic and relevant boundaries
  7. Create an environment of innovation
  8. Absorb risk, friction and anxiety for your team

Giving your team and organisation the confidence and capability to accept risk and seize opportunities is a deliberate process.  As leaders we have a responsibility to create the environment and set the conditions for success.  Build and train your teams to be able to understand intent and feel confident to take risks knowing that you have their backs.  Ultimately, gaps and opportunities will be found by them.  If they feel confident and capable, you will be able to pivot early and often.

SUSTAINMENT

The doctrine – Sustainment refers to the support arrangements necessary to implement strategies and operational plans.

“ You won’t find it difficult to prove that battles, campaigns, and even wars have been won or lost primarily because of logistics ”  – General Dwight. D. Eisenhower

The new executive with the grand ideas will often forget about the sustainability of a project or strategy.  Logistics and sustainability don’t just happen and can underpin an entire campaign.

Deliberate planning of time and resources for both offensive and defensive strategies should be a priority if you want an enduring impact.  The sustainability or logistical elements of are also those things that are easily targetable by a competitor who can bring more support to the game.

To be sustainable we must:

  1. Accurately plan the requirements of our missions
  2. Have a redundancy
  3. Identify the needs and requirements of our teams
  4. Be prepared to do more with less (should not be the ‘go to’ move)
  5. Be creative and use initiative
  6. Allocate resources to those areas with the greatest impact
  7. Prioritise resources (especially time and energy)
  8. Have a strategy and a plan

Sustainability of our initiatives is the life blood of enduring impact.  In change management, fatigue and obstruction are the result.  In projects, loss of capability occurs or a failure to meet scope.

Be clinical and decisive in your application of resources.

MAINTENANCE OF MORALE

The doctrine – Morale is an essential element of combat power. High morale engenders courage, energy, cohesion, endurance, steadfastness, determination and a bold, offensive spirit.

“ An army’s effectiveness depends on its size, training, experience, and morale, and morale is worth more than any of the other factors combined. ” – Napoleon Bonaparte

For those that know and understand the power of good morale, it is understood that this can be the power that turns the tide and make the unachievable…achievable.

Teams with high morale based on being highly trained, determined people with a shared value set, cohesion and trust will outperform even the best ‘qualified’ teams (on paper) with low morale. This is the secret force multiplier that changes the game.

Morale is built on:

  1. Trust
  2. Shared experience
  3. Open communication
  4. Success (short/long term) and performance
  5. Influential leadership (at all levels)
  6. A shared purpose and identity
  7. Commitment and conviction to succeed
  8. A genuine and authentic care for each other and the team
  9. Culture and a feeling of belonging
  10. A willingness to put the team above yourself

If you have worked in a team with high morale, you will understand the power and addictive nature of it. You feel indestructible and associate the impossible as the possible. However, it takes work and commitment to being a part of something bigger than yourself.

SUMMARY

The principles of war have been developed over the years as a set of factors and considerations for successful planning and implementation of strategy.

Depending on the environment, the adversary, experience, available time and any other amount of identifiable conditions will determine what weight is applied to each principle. We cannot achieve every principle perfectly every time. Sometimes we may have to sacrifice one to achieve another as a priority of circumstance. That means that careful consideration and analysis must be applied to each strategy and plan. The consideration itself will lead to a better plan than had it not been done at all.

Ultimately, having a set of principles that can help aid in planning and decision making helps you to create better outcomes.  The principles of war are one such set.

There is some genuine concern and trepidation about taking the first step. My question is, is it actually the first step that you are stalled on? Surely we are continuing something that has already begun. The action is the next step after the idea. The ‘how’ is the next step after the ‘why.’ In that case, the first step has been taken and now we have momentum.

In any project or change there is a slight pause at the beginning, followed by, “how does this thing start?” The thought alone strikes fear into a project or change manager. Especially, if there are tight dead lines. (Aren’t there always?) With your permission, let me share some simple tips and tricks for getting passed the first (next) hurdle.

1. Think of everything as a next step, not your first. The first step is always the hardest right? So… take the next step. It implies momentum and movement. Try re-framing your thoughts from “how do I start this thing,” to “what’s next?”

 2. Focus on the ‘Why.’ If you don’t know the reason for doing something, try and find it. Whenever there is an absence of what to do and how to do it, refer back to the reason why. This will guide your decision making and give your team a context for their own. For example, if I am analysing a next step, I filter it with ‘Good people, helping good people.’ That is my ‘why,’ what is yours?

 3. Establish a timeline with key timings and dead-lines. Building in boundaries and times for delivery, keeps us accountable to something. We know that something must be delivered at a certain time. This focuses our energy and allows us to prioritise what is important at a point in time. This way, we are less likely to get lost in things that don’t matter.

 4. Keep a project/ change notebook (log) – when in doubt refer to it and regain momentum. Ever lost track of what you were saying and couldn’t remember the point you were about to make? Keep a log/ diary of actions and information (mostly to reaffirm the ‘why’) and when in doubt, refer to it. This will allow a systematic and logic method of back tracking to then regain your momentum.

 5. Have a sounding board or mentor that is outside the project – they will provide logical and object perspective. A fresh set of eyes on a problem set is worth its wait in gold. Have you ever heard the saying:

Can’t see the forest for the trees

It means, that we are so buried in the details that we cannot see the whole situation. Take some time to detach from the details and re-orientate on the holistic picture. A new perspective will reveal information that can be extremely useful. Also, refer to point 2.

 6. You aren’t alone, invest in the team. How often have we heard of the best ideas coming from left field, somewhere we had not considered. This starts with the team. Teams that solve problems together are inherently stronger. Invest in that and the team will not only help with the solution but own the outcome.

6. Solve a problem, Then another and one more. Once we have solved enough problems, we are back on track. The biggest threat to delivery is no action at all. We will talk about wasting time and ‘what is the wrong action,’ in a later article.

There it is, some thoughts that might help you through a sticking point and allow you to gain some momentum. I would really enjoy your ideas and comments. 

What gets you through a ‘freeze’ moment? Let us know in the comments below.

For the last year Jonathan Clark and myself have been intimately involved with the implementation of a large scale Information Technology (IT) project which influenced almost all aspects of the broader organisation’s finance, sub-projects, customer data, product information, operations, manufacturing capabilities, retail centres etc. Prior to this project we were involved in numerous technology based projects within the Military, as both a deliverer of projects, and as key users. Our experiences have surfaced a number of significant recurring themes and lessons which we wanted to take the opportunity to share with those who had the time to listen.

Systems And Technology Alone Will Not Save You

We have observed an over reliance on technology, and a misconception that new digital systems will fix poor processes. They won’t! They never have, and they never will! Technology is not a silver bullet.

There is no doubt that technology can enhance an organisation’s productivity, capabilities and efficiencies; no one would argue otherwise as history has continuously proven this point. But technology without the right people to control it, guide it, quality check it, align it to strategic direction will almost always inevitably fail. By in large, people operate machines and computers, or at least as a minimum set them in the right direction. If people do not understand the strategic direction, the machines and technology will only seek to provide additional friction. Furthermore, changing a system for the sake of it costs money, time and resources. Too often organisations want to appear to be making changes in order to be seen moving, often very little time is spent on determining the actual reason for the change and the return on investment.

Change Management Is Not An Afterthought

Change Management is not a joke. It requires significant investment and analysis at all levels of an organisation. It is not the responsibility of a single agency or individual to promote change within an organisation. For large-scale change to be successful it requires leadership, champions, preparation and context. Too often, an organisation decides it wants a change but is not willing to give anything up to achieve it. Worse yet, no one is aware as to why the change is necessary or how it will occur. Change within organisations too often starts with the word ‘just’, and doesn’t fully comprehend the gravity of a problem, e.g. ‘justreplacing capability A with B’, ‘just absorb/move another organisation’, ‘just re-train group A into role D, etc.

Money, time and resources will be wasted if this is not taken seriously. The worst case scenario sees an organisation having to undo or regress its efforts. This can be so significant that it can destroy an organisation.

Leadership Is Not A Scary Word

You can change software interfaces and technologies, but unless you have user buy-in and ownership, the user will fight it to the bitter end. Furthermore, if there is no leadership to explain the context, facilitate the time for acceptance, provide a buffer for mistakes, then users will never see the need to make it work.

Jonathan and myself have been blessed with the privilege of having worked for, and alongside some truly amazing leaders in a plethora of different organisations (Military, government, commercial and non for profit). Very often we hear blasé comments about the differences between Leadership and Management, but often when people are asked if they consider themselves to be a leader they balk at the last minute and describe themselves as a good manager. Do not do that. Aspire to be a leader (if that is what you want), do not shy from the responsibilities associated with it and enjoy the privilege of providing meaningfulness to others, and effecting good changes.

Change Is Inevitable, Make Sure It’s The Right Change

“Change is inevitable; Progress is a choice”

Dean Lindsay 

Organisations will experience change, either voluntarily or due to the environments they operate in. Simply put, a business that doesn’t change or evolve with its industry will eventually be left behind. As a result of this many businesses appear to make reactive and impulsive changes instead of forecasted or deliberate changes that will posture them for future eventualities. This often leads to overcompensation and therefore an increase in costs and resources. Secondly, they are often very hesitant to align with realistic and achievable timelines and instead attempt to rush the change and hope for the best. Our experiences have reinforced the following rules regarding change:

  • Determine the direction of the organisation (what does good look like?) – Do not just start making changes!
  • Determine multiple ways to achieve the outcome – Take the time to analyse the problem.
  • Analyse what is not required to change – This is very rarely done correctly.
  • Communicate early and accurately with staff once a decision is made
  • Champion the decision – Enforce leadership at all levels.
  • Plan and sequence the change
  • Enact the change
  • Provide ongoing support to ensure success

There is significant benefit to be realised by enacting appropriate change management. Conversely the risk of getting it wrong can be monumental. Large scale changes (particularly technology based) will not work without alignment from all levels within an organisation. Do not assume the problem will go away with wishful thinking, and do not think you, or your organisation will not fall victim if you choose to ignore it.

It’s not about the technology, it’s about the people.

If you would like to see more of our articles please visit The Eighth Mile Blog.

As leaders and managers, it is our responsibility to find credible information which assists practical and informed decision-making. Unfortunately, decisions often have to be made without all the necessary information available. A decision maker in these circumstances will often leverage from their previous experience, the business risks associated with the decision, and levels of authority bestowed upon them, to name a few.

From my own experiences I have often seen many people very uncomfortable making decisions without ‘all’ the information. This often takes the form of indecision, where business or situational opportunities are missed – often being capitalised on by a competitor or more flexible/adaptable team.

In the military the term ’fog of war’, originally coined by Carl von Clausewitz (military strategist) is often utilised to explain uncertainty during war, and addresses the complexities with gathering accurate and timely information. The metaphor is often used to explain to commanders the importance of making decisions with what little information one has; a very important feature of war, particularly in the pursuit of maintaining momentum towards a goal or end-state.

So why are some people so uncomfortable with making decisions in the absence of ‘all’ the information? The answer it seems is simple; people do not want to make the wrong decision – this is understandable without additional context. They also presume that there is such a thing as a ‘perfect decision’. What if I told you there is no such thing as a ‘perfect decision’, and that the need to maintain momentum should be, in most cases, a stronger driving force. This is not to be confused with making rash or ill-considered decisions, as this can be equally damaging and frustrating to co-workers.

I would argue that that the purveyors of the 80% in time, as compared to the 100% too late rule are often those that excel in competitive markets, and generally maintain momentum towards project success.

Sir Richard Branson once said,

“There’s no such thing as perfect decision making – only hindsight can determine whether you made the ‘right call.’”

Branson placed greater emphasis on gathering accurate information in order to answer specific questions of fact, which would later either confirm or deny a decision to move forward. Too often people appear to be gathering information without a good understanding as to what decision it will influence. In these instances, people are most certainly busy, but unfortunately they are often collecting the wrong information. Quantity in this context does not ensure quality.

So what can leader and managers do to ensure they are assisting their teams with collecting the right information?

  1. Categorise your questions of fact – Determine what one must know/must have vs what is nice to know/nice to have. In some cases a metric or means of measuring the data will assist in knowing when it has been successfully gathered upon. Greater emphasis should be placed on answering the questions which will determine go/no go criteria for the project.
  2. Ask the right questions to the right stakeholders – Too often we are not engaging with the right people, nor asking the correct questions. When engaging with SMEs ensure that your question: is used to drive a specific decision on your end, and is asked in the correct language or vernacular (note: words have different meanings to different organisations). Don’t assume everyone speaks the same technical language -Engineers vs Project Managers is a recurring theme in many industries.
  3. Streamline data collection towards specific questions, which will confirm or deny a specific decision to be made – Effective Project Managers are those that can adequately define the Project Scope and ensure the project remains orientated towards a measurable end-state. If people are collecting information that does not target a specific decision, stop collecting it.  
  4. Sequence your data collection to align towards project milestones – Note: you often do not need all the information at that point in time. Some information will only become relevant later. If you wait for all the information you can miss critical opportunities as the project evolves.

In summary, if you have enough information to make a reasonably informed decision – make it! Nirvana is never reached in the pursuit for the perfect decision.

 We have taken many of these lessons and incorporated them into The Eighth Mile Consulting.

“I always likened the STAR method to that of a quick SMEAC. It was much easier as the interviewer when the interviewee presented their thoughts in a logical manner, not only because I had to write them down but also it’s easier to digest.

Rob, Recruiter, ex-military

“Hard to break the barrier sometimes not through lack of experience or relevance, but simple/subtle differences in lexicon.

Dave, transitioning from Military 

I [Tim Cook] wanted to carry on from a theme that fell out of my last post. I am not a proponent of the STAR (situation, task, action, result) interview technique. Most would be familiar with it, as it appears to be the dominant technique for organisations seeking to recruit new talent. I have had difficulty using it as the interviewee, and I’ve had feedback from other job seekers, as well as selection board members, that it doesn’t work for them either.

My position no doubt comes from a personal bias. I have always left an interview that used the technique feeling like I had not done well, and true to form I’ve not progressed through those recruiting rounds. I believe it is also an ex-military bias as we suffer from using a different business lexicon in our daily affairs. Many of us struggle to translate this lexicon when presenting for industry roles when we transition out of uniform. This makes answering questions about our capabilities and past experience difficult at the best of times. Having to do so using an answer format of situationtask, action and response, becomes that much harder.

Having said this I’ve also had others (again from all sides of the equation) tell me they are big fans. Many see it as the only viable method to test and compare job candidates’ suitability, and argue convincingly that if better methods existed they would be dominant. This has led to me to explain my position here. I’m a STAR challenger. I’m also a realist, and a job seeker. Whether I like it or not, it is the dominant interview technique, particularly for the kind of roles I seek out (professional services or middle to senior management positions). Whilst maintaining my position as a STAR challenger I need to become a STAR performer, or else I risk remaining a job seeker indefinitely.

Because I have heard such polarising positions on this matter I have reached out to my network to get their thoughts on it and include their opinions in a way that tells both sides. I’ve always found every opinion has merit if you seek to challenge the status quo.

I’ve also recruited in some help from an old colleague to co-author. We hope that in reading our thoughts below you begin to challenge whether the STAR technique is the best way to conduct interviews when recruiting for roles. And for those job seekers out there, we hope to provide some useful tips on how to become a STAR performer, regardless of whether you are also a STAR challenger.

What is the STAR interview method? When can it work?

The STAR technique is a widely utilised tool for a reason. It provides structure and design in a recruiting environment which is often saturated with applicants and information. 

“The recruiter doesn’t know anything about you. The STAR technique lets them test how appropriate your experience is for the role without giving away too much so they can make a judgement about your ability to do the job.” Becky, Recruiter. 

This being said, the STAR technique is best utilised when recruiting for technical and trade specific positions as it provides a logical and structured way to draw out specifics around a technical skill or past experience. In this way it is best used in multi-stage recruitment processes, such as where a second interview with a candidate focuses solely on technical capability. It is less suited as an initial interview technique or to roles that require a more generic or holistic approach to problem solving such as managerial, or leadership positions. The reasons for this will be discussed in greater detail below.

Why I’m a STAR challenger

So in the right circumstances, the STAR technique has merit and deserves it’s place as a tool for recruiters and interviewers to shortlist candidates and select the best for the role. It’s a tried and true method, and one that is comfortable for many; however, others have been expressing dissatisfaction with the technique for some time

“It is cumbersome and restrictive.” 

Deb, Group Facilitator

It has flaws, and there are equally many circumstances when other techniques are more appropriate. So let’s look at the flaws:

It tests the wrong things. In general the process tests against skills or competencies rather than cultural fit for the recruiting organisation. Fit and the potential to find a sense of purpose in the organisation or career path is much more important than perfect skills match. We never stop learning and can learn new skills when provided an environment that allows you to do so. When recruiters emphasise perfect skills fit I’m left wondering whether the organisation is willing to invest in their people at all.

Also many interviewers will try to use the STAR method to test cultural fit, attitude and values. This results in questions being very vague or broad, demanding “a particular time in space” response due to the format of the answer. Integrity, ambition, resourcefulness etc are demonstrated over time, not because a person did the right thing once and can provide a great STAR response. Also the demand for metrics in answering questions around culture, attitudes and values is nonsensical. What metric can you place against integrity?

It’s too specific and hence removes context. The STAR technique leads the candidate to “Tell me about ONE time you did this?” That they’ve done it once doesn’t indicate experience or competence. Anyone can cite a few experiences that meet a question. Sometimes they got lucky and were in the right place and time to have an amazing tale. But if they didn’t learn as much from it or weren’t as involved in the solution as the represent, then are they the best candidate just because they had the most impressive story? To come to grasps with a person’s potential is more difficult than asking for a few snapshots in time.

Another significant concern is that the technique does not allow the individual to adequately define or explain the broader context of a situation due to the need for brevity. This has significance when certain high-performing individuals have completed a task under the broader context of larger organisational changes or evolutions. For example, a candidate may explain how they were able to develop efficiencies within one aspect of their previous job role, however this will have been completed alongside numerous competing, and potentially more relevant events such as personnel shortfalls, budget cuts, stakeholder complexities and inhibiting risk management restrictions. This cannot be communicated easily when describing one challenge. Identifying an individual that can complete one task does not mean that they can adequately complete two or more. The STAR technique can channel organisations into missing out on individuals who can adequately prioritise work, operate under increased stress, and demonstrate adaptability. 

Too often it’s about the past rather than a conversation about the future. The entire premise revolves around what you’ve already done, rather than your potential to do something in the future, and isn’t the latter what recruiting is really about? 

Yes it is important to know whether the person has the qualifications (whether formal or informal) to do the job. This is answered in the candidates CV. It is also important that candidates demonstrate competence in those qualifications through their experience. This is also answered in the CV, and reinforced by referees. The real question is which candidate could do the job best. This is about the future, not the past.

It’s done badly. Often I’ve been asked questions that I couldn’t fathom had anything to do with the job for which I was applying. The questions danced around a theme and seemed to be hiding the purpose of why it was asked or sometimes the theme just seemed irrelevant. The STAR technique inhibits the applicant’s ability to provide a meaningful or creative answer or to explore why the question was asked, and therefore often competes against the recruiter’s priorities which may be to identify creativity, and influential leadership potential.

Too expand further, a well designed question should be open ended to allow the applicant to explain in great enough detail, and should not be presumptive, nor leading its delivery. For example, “tell me about a time you failed at something, and how you turned it around into a win,” will undoubtedly channel the applicant into a certain method of answering the question, covering the same reoccurrence of industry buzz words. Ultimately it results in duplicity and poor differentiation between candidates. The question is generic, demonstrates poor imagination, and it is questionable whether it was asked for the purposes of determining an organisational shortfall or gap in the first place.

Lastly the method is old and tedious. Recruitment as a discipline in HR has not undergone any real innovation in a few decades. Linkedin and mass recruitment sites are excellent and useful, but haven’t transformed the industry. We still look for jobs (on whatever medium they’re advertised including referrals), apply for one by sending in a CV & covering letter, and finally go to an interview most often expecting the STAR technique. We’ve been doing that for years.

How can recruitment be done better without using the STAR technique?

Do the preparation and ask relevant questions. If an organisation wants to hire adaptive, creative, and forward thinking managers and leaders, then it needs to provide the same level of commitment and investment into finding the right people. If this requires more time to conduct recruitment, then plan for it appropriately. Questions should target key attributes or skills required to rectify identified shortfalls within the organisation. For instance, if the individual is likely to move into the position and experience a high proportion of pre-existing personnel welfare, and human resourcing cases in their team, then a weight of effort should be applied in order to test how the person will react with the potential problem. This can be tested through the use of behavioral hypothetical questioning, with fake characters, locations and events.

If an organisation wanted to identify a potential leader, then the questioning would likely require an individual to demonstrate their creativity, and ability to communicate in different ways. In this instance, providing a question that requires multiple levels of analysis, a breakdown of competing priorities, and appropriate distribution of tasks within a defined timeline would be appropriate. Then have the individual present their approach to the problem in a medium of their choosing.

Role playing. Having an applicant face to face with another individual is a proven method of determining desirable behaviors. This coupled with relevant questioning modeled on likely issues to be seen in the workplace will improve the chances of identifying individuals who demonstrate similarly aligned cultural values, the ability to engage with stakeholders, and most importantly the ability to communicate. Role playing and rehearsal makes up a significant proportion of the training conducted within the military, as it tests an individuals tact, tone and ability to adapt to changing situations.

How do I become a STAR performer?

As an ex-military job seeker facing the STAR technique can be a daunting prospect. The reasons for this are many and varied, but centre on translating relevant experiences into language the interviewer understands and values and then making them fit the technique. Having to do so already sets you behind other candidates. The other is that our proudest or best examples may not be relevant to civilian jobs.

If we accept that in some cases STAR is here to stay, here are some tips to help you become a STAR performer.

Prepare. Like a stage performer, a political orator or a soldier, preparation is key. As much as possible try to think about the job you are going for, and what is important about the role from the perspective of the interviewer. Then match your experience and skills to that and prepare some outline responses. In doing the preparation try to use terms that are used in the new industry to break down the language barrier. If you don’t know the terms then do the research.

Rehearse. Once you’ve prepared some responses test them by rehearsing. Work with someone you trust; friends, family or your professional network and role-play. It may feel silly, but rehearsals are important. We practice processes, drills, orders or speeches. A job interview is no less important. Don’t leave yourself in a position where you are “winging it”. If the examples you use go over the head of the average person, then go back a step and try again. It will be tedious at first, but will get quicker and easier the more you try. 

Leave pride at the door. Professionals (and all servicemen and women are professionals) are proud people, and deservedly so given the hard work they demonstrate. But pride is also a sin. If you are crossing industries or transitioning from the military your best examples to questions may not be relevant to the recruiting organisation. For instance a soldier’s honest response to questions about hardship, challenge or working with difficult people are going to be very specific to the military environment. Conversely, this doesn’t mean all your experience is irrelevant.

If you are asked a question by a recruiter that leaves you thinking about an extreme and specific military situation then you may need to leave that behind. Instead in your own mind extend that question to end with “…. in a way that is relevant to me, this job or this industry”. Find a response from your history that is closely aligned to what you can expect in future roles and use those, even if they aren’t your proudest or most impressive achievement. When describing them avoid jargon. Instead use the language you rehearsed so you can be confident you will be understood.

Be confident the skills you have are valuable. Having worked in both the military and industry we can say that the training you receive in uniform is professional, world class and transferrable. Don’t be put off that it was “military training” or focused heavily on combat skills. Whilst learning about how to act in combat you learned other things like planning, leadership and administration. Those skills and who you became as a person is valuable and transferrable to industry. If you do the previous steps you will have numerous examples in language the interviewer can understand. This will give you confidence, and that confidence will shine through to the interviewer. If you really can’t see how your skills were transferrable, find a role model and turn them into a mentor so they can assist you. 

We hope you found this post interesting, informative and helpful. Please comment and share if you feel it would be helpful to others. We are very interested to hear and share thoughts on the STAR technique, and especially different ways of preparing for interviews as a job seeker. We plan on continuing this thread by drawing out common military skills and behaviours and mapping them across to industry language to assist with translating that lexicon. 

Tim Cook is a management consultant and professional with vast supply chain and operations management experience who served in the ADF for 14 years. David Neal is a current serving ADF member with 11 years of experience, with additional experience in operations management, leadership and human resourcing.

Tim Cook on LinkedIn: https://uk.linkedin.com/in/tim-cook-3398b369

David Neal on LinkedIn: https://au.linkedin.com/in/david-neal-a57025a2