Friday 21 July 2023

The Starling Method

Behavioural Interviews

Behavioural interviews have got more and more popular throughout my working life, so much so that I'd now say they are ubiquitous. I recall that when I was starting out, people would ask questions such as "how would you approach a situation where..." whereas now the question is always, "tell me about a situation where..." This may sounds like a small shift but the consequences are massive. We are now dealing with concrete examples with real situations, real people and real results (good or bad), rather than theory that we have read somewhere.

From what I have read on Wikipedia, "The idea is that past behavior is the best predictor of future performance in similar situations. By asking questions about how job applicants have handled situations in the past that are similar to those they will face on the job, employers can gauge how they might perform in future situations." Interestingly, I found exactly the same phrase in this LinkedIn post, but the Wikipedia article cites a 1995 source and the LinkedIn was posted in April 2023, so I think the 1995 reference is probably the original. So if we accept the initial premise above, "...past behaviour is the best predictor of future performance..." then we have to be prepared to go to interviews with some good answers to these questions because saying "if this happened to me I would..." is not going to cut it.

The STAR Method

Every piece of advice I've seen advises using the STAR method to answer the question. The components of your answer (if you aren't guided into them) should contain the following elements:
  • Situation - what is the context of this story
  • Task (or Target, I'll come back to this) - what you were asked to do
  • Actions - what you did
  • Results - what happened, how did it work out?


This is pretty self explanatory, what was the situation that meant you had to (e,g.) resolve some conflict in your team? (a depressingly frequent visitor to the behavioural interview, why does everybody assume that conflict resolution is sufficient common that it has to be raised in every interview? Does it say something about the organisation that asked the question?) 

Task (or Target)

This is what you were asked to do / had to do. For example, "resolve a conflict". I prefer Target over task here, but maybe that is just me. My reason is that a lot of stories begin with "I was asked to do..." One thing I learnt in my Thoughtworks days is that delegation should be based on delegation of outcomes, not tasks. So in my personal experience of delegation, which is extensive as a manager, I have learnt that people react better to being given an outcome and being free, at least to an extent, to work out how to achieve that outcome. 

So a while ago I asked a team member to "get us to a place where all our laptops have encrypted hard drives and they can be remotely wiped in the event of loss", rather than, "Find the best MDM for our company." To an extent, this also framed the selection criteria of the MDM by outlining the most important characteristics of the choice. This in turn helped my colleague to provide me with the right level of detail to support the choice that was made.


This is pretty obvious, I hope. This is what we did.


Again, this should be obvious. What happened? Were you successful? Some sources I have read also tag on the end something about learning. The Wikipedia article linked above says, "What did you learn from this experience? Have you used this learning since?" I find this coda problematic. Learning should be a first class citizen.

Learning as a First Class Citizen

All good organisations should embrace learning. If they don't, they will not improve, if you don't improve, you will be going backwards in comparison to your competitors. Jack Welch is said to have said, "An organization's ability to learn, and translate that learning into action rapidly, is the ultimate competitive advantage." (although I'm sure I've read a similar quote by Peter Senge).

So I believe that almost everything we do should contain a self reflection (or a team reflection, maybe call it a "retro") on what we learnt. Perhaps you can use the results to ask, "how do I make sure I succeed again", often we need to ask, "how do I make sure a similar failure doesn't happen again?" So learning should always follow.

Conclusion - The STARLing Method

I believe learnings should follow experience and I believe that if something is perceived as "failed" that shouldn't matter as long as appropriate learnings were taken and acted upon. So I would propose that we should talk about the STARLing Method:
  • Situation
  • Task or Target
  • Actions
  • Result
  • Learnings
Armed with this modified answer, we should no longer be afraid to discuss a situation in a behavioural interview where there may have been a perception of failure. I would even argue that when we talk about a "failed experiment" in Lean experiment terms, we shouldn't talk about failure. The only failed experiment is one with an inconclusive result. If we tested a hypothesis that we thought might increase sales but it didn't increase sales, we have learnt something that doesn't work. That isn't failure, that is learning!