Stop Using Pre-Scripted Questions in an Interview

Stop_sign_pageOver my career, I’ve hired over 50 direct reports and been involved in the hiring process for over 150 other people.  For the most part, all of these hires ended up being good people and great employees. Sure, there were a couple bad hires in there but I’d like to think my track record is pretty good mostly because I approached each interview as a conversation rather than a list of questions.

Many of these hires were technical people that filled roles as engineers, data scientists, trainers, technical support, consulting and sales roles.  I’ve seen (and hired) the gamut of roles throughout my career so I think I’m in a position to say the following:

Please…PLEASE…stop using pre-scripted question forms.

Please stop walking into an interview with a list of questions that are you are going to ask one after another. Please stop going down a list of ‘required’ questions that you got from HR or from the internet.

For example, I was hiring for a position way back in my earliest days of my career. During the phone interview, the hiring manager spent 30 minutes going line by line down a page full of pre-scripted questions (e.g., Tell me a bout a time you were creative, Give me an example of how you’ve been a leader, etc etc).  The interview was a very halting, non-interactive process that was painful.   It was also a process that made me realize I had no interest in every working for that company and that manager.  Side note: My response to the “tell me about a time you were creative…” was “…last time I interviewed someone, I came up with my own questions.”

If you only ask a set of pre-scripted questions, you are doing yourself and your interviewee a huge disservice.  You aren’t allowing them to be themselves and you aren’t allowing your own personality to come out during the interviewing process.  I realize there might some companies that require a certain set of questions to be asked during the hiring process. I’m OK with that as long as the hiring manager takes their time to ask their own questions and have a conversation with the person they are interviewing. That conversation needs to be a real conversation that touches on all aspects of the role you are interviewing for.

For example, take a look at this list of questions for data scientists.  There’s some great questions on there about the technical aspects of ‘doing’ data science but I’d lose my mind if I were sitting through an interview with those questions being asked of me.  Many of those questions are what google and stackexchange is for.  Sure, you want to hire a technically competent data scientist but sitting down with a list of questions like that isn’t the only way (or even the best way) to do it.

Rather than use that list as-is, a good hiring manager would use that list as a baseline to try to build a ‘road’ to try to lead a candidate down.  Rather than ask questions like “What is latent semantic indexing? What is it used for? What are the specific limitations of the method?” why not get the candidate talking about their recent projects and try to lead them down a road that talks about the approaches the took, the analysis methods they used and the decisions they made in how they approached the data?

Pre-scripted interview questions are great to give you ideas on what topics you want to cover, but make the interview your own. Don’t use the list as a crutch…have a conversation with the person you are interviewing…don’t just lob questions at them.

“Digital” Transformation

transformationMany folks are talking about the ‘digital’ transformation that is happening across many industries and businesses today.  These folks mention digital transformation as if its something new or different than any other transformation project that companies have had to undergo through their lifetimes.

Last week I read a post titled “Why most digital transformation projects will fail (and how to make sure yours doesn’t)” written by Martin Gill, VP and Principal Analyst at Forrester Research.   Martin provides a very good overview of why he believes most digital transformations will fail (and I agree wholeheartedly with everything he writes).

The interesting thing about Martin’s article is that he doesn’t focus on the ‘digital’ aspect of the transformation. This is significant because transformation isn’t really anything new. Companies have had to transform their business models or they’ve died.  Digital transformation is nothing special olr new…its just another change that companies have to undergo to remain competitive.

They key for ensuring a successful transformation of any kind is proper change management. Whether that transformation is a digital transformation or the ‘next’ transformation to come along, if you can’t implement a well managed and properly planned change management project, your transformation project will fail.

At the end of his article, Martin gives his advice for ensuring your digital transformation project succeeds. He writes:

The way organizations have been planning and managing large-scale change is no longer fit for purpose.

We need a new approach. An iterative, customer-centric, and agile approach. One in which your digital strategy is engaging, easily consumable by all your key stakeholders, compelling, and, above all, responsive to the inevitable change we all face.

Notice that he leads off by stating that the key priority for ensuring success is a quality change management approach.  He doesn’t talk about getting buy-in for ‘digital’ or some other topic…he talks about the importance of change management.

If you want to ensure your digital transformation project (or any other transformation project) succeeds, make sure you have a good idea in how to enact change within your organization. Without proper change management, any transformation you undertake is doomed to failure.

The Role of the CEO – Driving Corporate Culture

The role of the CEOI’m sure there are many definitions of a CEO out there. Plenty of people will say the CEO should be a leader, manager, communicator and facilitator.  Other’s might say that the CEO is the person most focused on strategy and the ‘future’ of the business.

Investopedia defines the CEO as:

The highest ranking executive in a company whose main responsibilities include developing and implementing high-level strategies, making major corporate decisions, managing the overall operations and resources of a company, and acting as the main point of communication between the board of directors and the corporate operations. The CEO will often have a position on the board, and in some cases is even the chair.

Not a bad definition of the role. It does highlight the main functions of a CEO…but I’d like to add some commentary about the role of the CEO that isn’t highlighted in  that definition or in most definitions of CEO that I’ve found.

The one addition that I would add to the definition? Culture.

The CEO must be the owner and driver of corporate culture.  If culture is an important aspect of the competitive advantage for a business, the ownership of the company’s culture must live with the CEO.

If you want your business to be ‘customer focused’, that needs to be the main focus of your organization’s culture. You can’t just say to your front-line people that they should be focused on the customer…you have to live and breath ‘customer focus.’   If you want your business to be ‘agile’, you’ve got to ensure everything about your business screams “agility”.

Recently, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, was asked about his role these days. His answer? He focus on culture.  The full response was:

My main job today: I work hard at helping to maintain the culture. A culture of high standards of operational excellence, of inventiveness, of willingness to fail, willingness to make bold experiments. I’m the counterbalance to the institutional “no” who can say “yes.” I’m not going to be here forever. Many of the traits that make Amazon unusual are now deeply ingrained in the culture. In fact, if I wanted to change them, I couldn’t. The cultures are self-reinforcing, and that’s a good thing

Here we see the guy that started Amazon saying that his main goal isn’t making day-to-day decisions on operations (although he does chime in when he needs to) but his main job is maintaining and driving the company’s culture.

A company’s culture is pervasive and requires leadership from ‘on high’ like that provided by Bezos. One of the most important role’s of the CEO is to help drive and shape corporate culture. Sure, the other stuff is important as well, but without a culture that fits the business strategy, your business might just spin its wheels.

On Common Sense

common senseRecently, my wife wanted to buy an item for her photography studio.  This particular item is something that you’d never think belonged in a studio…but photographers are creative people and they find many uses for all sorts of things.

This item is a cat scratcher that looks similar to the item in the photo below. We don’t own cats so it didn’t make a lot of sense to me to need to purchase this device but after she showed me how this scratcher is turned into ‘prop’ for newborn photography, I was amazed.

Basically, what a photographer can do is take this scratcher and wrap it in twine or rope and then use it to place a baby in…the resulting photography is quite good (an example here).786306494353CS1

Who would have thought of buying a cat scratcher to make a prop? Like I said…photographers are creative people.

My wife wanted to buy one and started looking around the web to find them.  They seemed to average about $20 to $25 on various online sites but Wal-Mart had one listed on their website for $14.99.   We aren’t fans of Wal-Mart but saving money on business props is a necessary consideration.

We decided to run down to Wal-Mart to take a look at them and pick one up if it looked OK.  We went to Wal-Mart, found the pet section and noticed the scratch was $19.99 in-store. We confirmed the exact item was $14.99 online and were a bit perplexed but the price difference. My assumption was that the local store just hadn’t changed the price of the in-store item.

We grabbed the item and make our way to the customer service desk to inquire about the price difference.

Here’s where the “common sense” (or lack thereof) comes into play.

The customer service rep’s answer was “it is $19.99 in store…if you want the $14.99 price, you can order it on-line and have it delivered or pick it up in-store”.   When I heard that, I cringed at the backwards thinking that was at work.

What kind of company institutes a policy that provides lower prices online and then when a customer wants to purchase that item in their store, won’t match the online price? They’ll price match competitors prices…why not their own price?

Now, if it were up to me, I would have bought it from another store. In fact, I would have done so right then and there while standing in front of the Wal-Mart associate….but it wasn’t up to me.  My wife stood there and ordered the item from Wal-Mart’s online store and selected “pick up in store”, which is a free service offered by Wal-Mart.   We left the store and the following day she received an email that the item was ‘ready for pick up”.

Now…common sense would tell me (and hopefully you), that the right thing to do would have been to sell that item for the online price right then and there without issue. But no…that’s not what happened. Instead, Wal-Mart incurred some additional costs to take the online order, route it to the right store and have someone in that store go pick an item, bring it to the ‘in store pick up’ location and prepare the item for pick-up.

Does that make sense to do?  Why incur additional costs, however small they may be, when the buyer was in-store ready to buy?  It would have taken a few seconds for the associate to ring us up at the internet price and send us on our way with no incremental costs to Wal-Mart. Yet another reason to not shop at Wal-Mart.

Common sense..apparently isn’t that common.

The People Challenge for the Midsize Organization

Smiling Group of ProfessionalsThere are many challenges facing the IT function within the midsize organization. Actually, there are many challenges facing the IT function within all organizations but there’s a particular challenge facing the smaller organizations.

The ultimate challenge for small and midsize organizations is finding the right mix of people and technologies for the things the organization needs to do. For example, for an organization to start exploring big data, they first need to find people and technologies that allow them to do the data collection,data storage and analysis that needs to be done. This particular challenge isn’t all about money, it’s about finding the right people with the right skills to do the work as well as finding the right technologies and systems to deliver the required functionality.

The challenge of finding the right people and technologies isn’t just an SMB challenge. It is faced by every organization, but small and midsized organization can have more of challenge on their hands because they can’t offer the same long career path to new employees.

Over on the Midsize Insider, S. Anthony Iannarino wrote an article titled “You are Hiring for Runway” where he talks about the need to hire for the right skills but also the right “attitude” and growth potential. He writes that organizations should hire those people who can bring a long-term advantage to the business.

That’s the difficulty for many SMB’s – it is often hard to keep people interested for a long career due to limited opportunities. The challenge for the small and midsize organization is, first, to find good people. Then, they need to find ways to keep those people interested and challenged.

WIth the right approach and mindset, small and midsize organizations can provide more opportunities to employees than their larger competitors.

IBMThis post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

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Dark Data & The Data Disconnect

Dark DataI ran across a blog the other data that used the term “dark data” when describing an organization’s data that is collected during standard business activities that never really gets used for any purpose other than its original purpose.  Dark Data is that data the gets created, collected, stored but rarely revisited for any purpose after its initial use.

Before we get into the world of Dark Data, let me take a quick detour to set the stage for this particular topic.  I’ve written about Shadow IT many times in the past and specifically touched on the topic of ‘dark data’ in a post titled Data Disconnect. In that post, I wrote the following about the “data disconnect” problem:

You can do your job. And…you can do your job well.  But…your work is being done in a vacuum.

Your data might remain in that vacuum. But worse…whatever knowledge that data might create (or has created) will remain in that vacuum as well.

The data disconnect problem is real and is one that hasn’t been addressed much in recent years. The same can be said of Shadow IT, although many organizations I speak with tell me they have been able to get in front of Shadow IT recently.

So – back to Dark Data.  Do you think the data disconnect creates dark data?

While it may not be the only reason dark data exists, it is a main driver of the phenomenon in my experience.

Let’s take a look at a scenario taken from a real-world example.

The Scenario

You are the director of marketing for a mid-sized business.

One of your goals for this year is to revamp your web analytics engine to better understand your site visitors and help inform decisions on how well your on-site marketing is working and what types of content work best for your clients.

You reach out to your IT group to ask for help and receive very little in the way of support. The first response you get is a standard “it isn’t in the budget for the year” or “we’ll need to run that through our portfolio management system”.   You talk to the CIO who says budget and process are the drivers for this type of thing and there’s not much he can do.

What do you do?   You do the same thing every marketing person has done for years…you go out and start talking to web analytics software and consulting companies to see how they can help.

After a few months and a selection process, you decide to go with company X for their analytics platform. This platform requires very little in the way of integration with your website so it takes very little to get the few lines of code integrated into the site.  You do need to get the IT group to do add these lines of code (which takes much longer than you thought it should).

Your new analytics engine is in place and you are now able to see start asking and answering better questions about how visitors are consuming your website.

Your goal of implementing a new system has been met and your Marketing VP is ecstatic with your performance and gives you a nice bonus and some well deserved kudos.

Within a few months, other folks within the organization start you questions about the website. You are able to quickly and easily tell them how many visitors you’ve had, where they come from, what they do while there and various other types of questions. You are using your analytics data for its intended purpose.

Then one day you hear of a new project. This project is looking at all areas of customer ‘touch’ and analyzing how well those touch points are working and whether these touch points a can be improved upon.  The CIO asks you how to interface with your analytics data to begin to use it alongside other analytical data to begin to study the organization’s touch points with clients.

You ask your analytics provider how you can start to integrate their data with your local data. The answer “we don’t provide that capability”.

You’ve just realized you are trapped in the data disconnect. You have data that you can’t use anywhere else in the organization. You have data that is useless outside of your web analytics engine.   You have dark data.

Moral of the Story

This is a real story from a real organization.

The outcome of this particular scenario is the marketing department had to backtrack and start using another analytics engine that integrated with the other systems used throughout the organization. This backtrack left about 6 months of web analytics sitting out in the cloud in a provider’s system without any way of analyzing that data outside their tool.

This sort of thing happens every day in business. People go out and purchase their own applications and systems without IT involvement because the cloud makes it easy to do so. This is Shadow IT.

There are approaches to alleviate Shadow IT, but you can never fully stop it today. It is much too easy to plunk down a credit card number and order services via the cloud today.

The IT group can help to alleviate Shadow IT by being a bit more proactive as well as a bit more interactive when dealing with the organization. It’s not longer good enough to say “no” or “the process is…” or “our budget doesn’t allow…”.  The organization is looking for solutions and the IT group needs to start being the group that says ‘yes’ – or at least ‘let’s figure out how to make this work’.

Shadow IT can lead to a data disconnect which can lead to one form of dark data where data lives in your applications but cannot (or at least is not) used for any other analytical purpose.

How is your organizations fighting the data disconnect and dark data?

Image Credit: Data Packets on Flickr