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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