Questions in the Second Order Harmonic

Imagine a team as an organic jigsaw puzzle. Teams are fractal in nature – they are thematic but variation abounds. They are ever-changing. When building or augmenting teams, the goal is not to hire the best people in a vacuum, but rather the best people that fit into the theme one is trying to achieve. This changes the nature of an interview. If you wanted to hire the most knowledgeable person, just give them a test. I don’t mean to be glib, but this kind of staffing is ludicrous. The second order harmonic is about finding out who the person is, what they think, why think what they think and most importantly, what they do about it.

From the prior article about second order harmonic, we’ll now go on to explore some examples which will help frame the kinds of dialog that should be in an interview.

(hint: this technique’s value is hardly limited to interviewing. Next time you have to figure out what’s going on in a project or company, try applying these approaches in your questions – you’ll get some very telling information!)

Example #1 ~ Don’t ask direct questions.

There are two predominate reasons for this approach. First of all pat questions deserve pat answers. And you’ll get plenty of them. If one was to ask, “Do you believe code should be documented?”, what kind of answer am I going to provide? What did we learn about my thoughts on documentation? Exactly. Nothing.

As a specific example, as a hazard of my vocation I am well versed in development methodologies. I will never ask someone what development methodologies they use or believe in or have been successful with. Never will the words “agile”, “iterative”, “waterfall”, “XP” come from my mouth. In fact I won’t ask the question in such a way that those words can be used as an asnwer. “What type of development approach do you find most effective?” is a fruitless question.

I’ll start a methodology discussion asking a question such as, “If you had a funded project with a business customer and a project vision, but no team, tell me about how you would start?” One cannot just answer “Oh, I’m agile”. From that point on, all the questions will be around what is being done, why and how. They will discuss what they do first, second, how they’d build the team, engage the customer, set up the project, and many of the lifecycle activities. What they don’t discuss will be equally telling. Through that conversation, we’ll draw in parallels from previous work experiences (e.g. I may ask, “did you do X on a previous project?”). After 10 minutes of dialog in this area I will have a very good idea of both their experience and their approach to development. That is the second order harmonic. I will have a deeper understanding of their methodology and philosophy through what they chose to focus on and how it paralleled their work experience; that is, deeper than someone telling me they are “agile” and explaining how and why.

Example #2 ~ What matters in a work environment?

My interviews are easy, most of the time. Why? Because the goal for me is to extract as much information as I can with a candidate. For that to happen, they have to be comfortable and conversant. I often ask questions which have no right or wrong answer, but rather reflect on someone’s experiences and philosophies. I’m not advocating avoiding hard or specific questions, mind you. I’m going to assume (maybe incorrectly?!) that asking such questions is obvious. Best to ask direct and difficult questions once the interviewee is relaxed and conversant.

Back to the example, pose the following question to a candidate – “Say you managed a team where 1/3 of their compensation was potentially paid in bonus. You have to base their merit on just two factors in the workplace, what would those factors be?”

There is no right answer, but their response becomes the entry point to valuable conversation. Why? Their answer will invariably reflect what they’ve either seen to be most valuable in the workplace OR what they believe to be most valuable but have never experienced. The latter actually implies quite a bit about the individual. But nonetheless the second order harmonic will be unique insight to what has mattered in their work experience. How is it second order? The first order information is on the resume – responsibilities, roles, experiences which you would otherwise read through and discuss throughout a typical interview; with a second order approach, the dialog which ensues will go well beyond the information on the resume. In fact you will thematically discover what the candidate believes their most important contributions are as well as their most important traits or attributes. Rarely does someone provide answers which do not reflect what they perceive as their own strengths.

Example #3 ~ What are the most significant contributions you believe you’ve made?

Not long ago I interviewed a senior architect. He had been internally referred and was known to be a reasonably capable guy. I spent some time discussing his contributions in the workplace. People love to talk about what they think is important. By following through and asking for more contributions, a theme began to emerge which demonstrated a strong desire on his part to organize interactions with outside groups, such as auditors. After several examples which he chose, it became clear that he viewed his architectural activities more in the realm of what a PMO may do in a large organization. Of course his resume did not read that way. Nor was he specifically looking for such a position. Why is this important? Recall the organic jigsaw puzzle – if one is looking for an architect to tackle those kinds of issues, then this could be your man. But if we are looking for someone who is going to dive deep and drive what a technology team needs to successfully build software, this guy may not be the one.

Most roles are multi-faceted and someone will fill certain facets better than others. Said another way, the best way to know if someone likes chicken, beef, fish or vegetables is to ask them what they want for dinner across several evenings. See what they choose. That is not to say if they choose beef in general they don’t like chicken. But someone who consistently chooses beef is not the person I’m going to typically ask to be the fish expert. The second order harmonic in this situation – rather than directly asking a candidate what is most important in a role they might take, we learn what they believe matters most by observing patterns in their contribution, then tying those patterns back to their work experiences.

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