Book review: “Humble Inquiry”

Edgar H. Schein, a former professor at MIT has done a lot of research in the field of organisational culture, and I particularly like the work he has done with respect to effective communication. His 2013 book “Humble Inquiry: The Gentle Art of Asking Instead of Telling” is a prime example of Schein’s endeavours to help create what he refers to as ‘positive relationships and effective organisations’.

What does the ‘humble’ part of Humble Inquiry stand for?

When Schein talks about humility in the context of humble inquiry, he refers to ‘Here-and-now Humility’. Schein describes this type of humility felt when a person is dependent on another person to help achieve certain goals or tasks that he or she has committed to. As Schein writes “My status is inferior to yours at this moment because you know something or can do something that I need in order to accomplish some task or goal that I have chosen.”

People can thus choose between denying the dependency on another person (and avoid feeling humble) or engaging with the other person (and be humble). Schein explains why Here-and now Humility’ is hard to learn; in achievement-oriented cultures where knowledge and display of it are admired, asking questions or admitting that you don’t know can be felt as a loss of status.

What does the ‘inquiry’ part of Humble Inquiry stand for?

Inquiry comes down to curiosity. Plain and simple. It means that you ask questions. But Schein is at pains to urge us not to ask any old question; in Humble Inquiry there is no place for:

  • Leading questions – a question that prompts or encourages the answer wanted.
  • Rhetorical questions – a question asked purely to create a dramatic effect or make a point, instead of getting an answer.
  • Statements in the form of questions – you are just making a point or are trying to provoke, but not asking a question.

One of the things I like about the book is that Schein isn’t trying to be prescriptive about the specific questions you should ask. Instead, he encourages the reader to reflect on the kind of relationship that she wants to build and the forces that hinder us in practising Humble Inquiry. I’m keen, however, to offer some practical examples of questions that you could ask, which I believe stimulate active listening and trusted relationships:


“Can you help me understand why ___?”

“Would love to understand what you did here.”  

“Just for my learning, can you please explain?”

“Can you think of any major risks related to this task”

“What is the biggest you learned from _____?” 

“What is ____ like today? “Why is that?” 

What could we do differently and why?”

“Can you please talk me through the pros and cons?”

Main learning point: The concept of curiosity sounds so simple and obvious, but in reality we often resort to ‘telling’ instead of ‘asking’. Humble Inquiry teaches us to be mindful of other people and encourages developing a genuine interest in other people and the creation of trusted relationships.

Book Review: “Shape Up” by Ryan Singer

Basecamp is a project management and communication platform, widely known for its innovative software development practices and novel ways of working. Ryan Singer, Basecamp’s Head of Strategy, recently captured Basecamp’s approach in Shape Up, which is freely available online and as a PDF. The product development process at Basecamp consists of three distinct stages: shaping, betting and building.

Taken from:

Basecamp typically work in six-week cycles, building and releasing new features within that timeframe. The work is shaped first before it’s given to a team to work on. A small senior group works in parallel to the cycle teams. They define the key elements of a solution before considering a project ready to bet on. Interestingly, shaping is less about traditional estimation of development work, and much more about appetite. Instead of asking how much time it will take to do some work, people at Basecamp will consider how much time they want to spend on a specific piece of work; how much is this idea worth?

Taken from:



When shaping a solution, the aim is to strike the right balance between ‘too vague’ and ‘too detailed’. Wireframes are deemed too concrete, whilst words are often too abstract. The reason why this balance is important is that the scope of a project needs to be flexible enough for the team to come up with appropriate design solutions whilst not running the risk of growing out of control due to a lack of boundaries.

Taken from:

These are the main steps to shaping:

  1. Set boundaries – First figure out how much time the raw idea is worth and how to define the problem. This provides the basic boundaries to shape into.
  2. Rough out the elements – Then comes the creative work of sketching a solution. At Basecamp, they do this at a higher level of abstraction compared to wireframes in order to move fast and explore a wide enough range of possibilities. The output of this step is an idea that solves the problem within the appetite but without all the fine details worked out.
  3. Address risks and rabbit holes – Once there is the feeling that a solution has been found, the goal is to find holes or unanswered questions that could trip up a team. The solution gets amended accordingly, tricky things removed from it, or specified details at tricky spots to ensure that a team doesn’t waste time or gets stuck.
  4. Write the pitch –  When the solution is shaped enough to bet on, things are packaged up formally in a pitch. The pitch summarises the problem, constraints, solution, rabbit holes, and limitations. The pitch then goes to Basecamp’s betting table for consideration.

Ryan Singer writes about how Basecamp uses the technique of breadboarding, a concept borrowed from electrical engineering. When breadboarding, three things are drawn:

  1. Places – These are things you can navigate to, like screens, dialogs, or menus that pop up.
  2. Affordances – These are things the user can act on, like buttons and fields. Interface copy is considered to be an affordance too, as reading it is an act that gives the user information for subsequent actions.
  3. Connection lines – These show how the affordances take the user from place to place.

I like how words are used instead of pictures, focusing on the solution’s components and the connections between them and allowing you to figure out an idea. Importantly, this technique allows you to judge if the sequence of actions serves the use case you’re trying to solve.

Taken from:


If the idea being considered is a visual one. In this case, breadboarding would be insufficient because the visual representation is the fundamental problem. At Basecamp, wireframes wouldn’t be created in this circumstance, but fat marker sketches would be created instead. A fat marker sketch is a sketch made with such broad strokes that adding detail is difficult or impossible.


Taken from:


Bets, Not Backlogs

Singer explains how at Basecamp backlogs are viewed as time wasters; the time spent constantly reviewing, grooming and organising ‘tickets’, working on a list of items that might or might not get done. By contrast, Singer talks about holding a betting table before each six-week cycle. At the betting table, stakeholders evaluate pitches from the last six weeks, or any pitches that somebody purposefully revived and lobbied for again.


Taken from:


The betting table at Basecamp consists of the CEO, the CTO, a senior developer and product strategist (Ryan Singer himself). The main reason why Basecamp use bets instead of plans, is the difference in expectations set when talking about bets:

  • Bets have a payout – Solutions are deliberately shaped into six-week projects so that there’s meaningful finished at the end. The pitch defines a specific payout that makes the bet worth making.
  • Bets are commitments – If a bet is made for six weeks, then the relevant people will get six weeks to work exclusively on that thing for six weeks, without distractions.
  • Bets have a cap on the downside – When a bet is made to work on something specific for six weeks, the most that you can lose is six weeks and thus avoiding a situation where you’re spending multiples of the original six-week commitment on a solution.

Build your way uphill

                     Taken from:


This section of “Shape Up” starts with a great and very true point about the unpredictability of development work: “This goes back to the notion of imagined versus discovered tasks. In our naive notion of a list that’s planned up-front, somebody populates it with items that are gradually checked off. In real life, issues are discovered by getting involved in the problem. That means to-do lists actually grow as the team makes progress.” Also, numeric estimates of pieces of work often don’t take into account the level of uncertainty involved in different tasks. Basecamp have recognised this and instead use the metaphor of the hill, which concentrates on what’s unknown and what’s solved:


                      Taken from:


The idea behind this hill is that anyone in the company can see at a glance where things are at. If a task been ‘uphill’ for while, why is that? What unknown is holding it up? Or perhaps the item on ten hill consists of a number of smaller items. The hill helps to see what is stuck and what has been done, or getting close to being completed.

Conclusion: I found “Shape Up” a very helpful and insightful book. Not only does it provide a great insight into Basecamp’s approach to developing products, it also made me reflect on my own ways of working – and the teams that I’m part of. Highly recommend reading “Shape Up” if you’re interested in learning about alternative ways of developing software products or collaborating during the product development lifecycle.


Book Review: “Unlearn” by Barry O’Reilly

“Disruption does not actually apply to organisations. The truth is it applies to individuals.” states Barry O’Reilly early on in Unlearn: Let Go of Past Success to Achieve Extraordinary Results. O’Reilly goes on to explain what great leaders and their companies have in common: a capability within themselves to innovate, adapt, and anticipate the future. Barry O’Reilly is a business advisor, entrepreneur, and author who operates at the intersection of business model innovation, product development, organisational design and culture transformation.

In order to adjust, O’Reilly argues in his latest book, we’ll need to unlearn, which starts with acknowledging that what you’re doing isn’t working for you. You need to let go of past viewpoints or behaviours, and take action to do what’s needed to progress. The Cycle of Unlearning contains four distinct steps to go through each time we need to adapt and innovate.

Barry O’Reilly, The Cycle of Unlearning


Step 1: Unlearn – Unlearning starts with the recognition that what we’re doing isn’t working. The core premise of “Unlearn” is a strong willingness to learn and to unlearn those behaviours and mindsets which once served us successfully. The first step in the process of unlearning requires courage, self-awareness, and humility to accept  that your own beliefs, mindsets, or behaviours are limiting your potential and current performance and that you must consciously move away from them.

Step 2: Relearn – O’Reilly makes the point that as you unlearn your current limiting but ingrained methods, behaviours, and thinking, you can take in new data, information, and perspectives. This is the process of relearning, which comes with its own challenges: (1) you must be willing to adapt and be open to information that goes against your inherent beliefs (2) you may need to to learn how to learn again and (3) you must create an environment for relearning to happen in a meaningful, yet often challenging, space outside your existing comfort zone. The point of relearning is that you’re trying to get better information and learn to see, sense, and listen differently, to respond and act differently.

Step 3: Breakthrough – Breakthrough is the net result of unlearning and then relearning. O’Reilly stresses in his book that breakthrough isn’t simply a matter of telling people to think differently, with the expectation that they will act differently as a result. Instead, the way to think differently is to act differently. This isn’t a one off event; it’s continuous and a deliberate practice or habit in its own right, often triggered by specific unlearning prompts:

  • Where are you falling short of your expectations?
  • Where are you not seeing the outcomes you want?
  • What are you willing to do to affect those outcomes?
  • How could you get out of your comfort zone and succeed?
  • What would thinking BIG but starting small be for you?

In the book, O’Reilly outlines what he sees as the four necessary conditions of unlearning:

  1. Identify a challenge you wish to address – Pick a challenge you want to tackle and don’t worry about waiting for the right moment to do so. O’Reilly suggests that the best place to start is where you’re right now.
  2. Define success as though you have dissolved or conquered the challenge – What are the behaviours you, your team, or your customers would be exhibiting to confirm that you had addressed that challenge and not only solved it, but dissolved it forever?
  3. Channel courage over seeking comfort – O’Reilly makes the point that seeking comfort over courage often results in taking the easy option of avoiding situations where you feel you’re not in control of the outcome. As a result, you’re stuck in the status quo and not growing. Whilst not easy to do, moving outside your comfort zone requires courage and a willingness to be vulnerable.
  4. Commit to, start, and scale the cycle of unlearning – Once the three previous conditions are in place, it’s important to commit to moving forward through the Cycle of Unlearning and to do so continually (see above).

Helpfully, O’Reilly has included necessary conditions for relearning and breakthrough too. Reflection, for example, is a necessary condition for relearning. Continuously reflecting on what has happened will lead to valuable, breakthrough moments and insights. You break through by stepping back and reflecting on exactly what it is that you’re doing and the results your effort is yielding.


Main learning point: Having not really thought about the concept about unlearning before, Barry O’Reilly’s book provided much clarity about discarding old beliefs or approaches and replacing them with new ones. Never does the book feel like unlearning is a silver bullet that will magically solve all your learning or innovation challenges. Instead, O’Reilly pains a realistic picture of the courage required to unlearn, and the ongoing nature of un- and relearning.


Book review: Banish Your Inner Critic by Denise Jacobs


I think it’s fair to assume that suffering from ‘imposter syndrome’ is common among most of us. Even with those people where you least expect it, they often suffer from some form of self-criticism. In her latest book “Banish Your Inner Critic”, Denise Jacobs links creativity and imposter syndrome: “creativity comes from relaxing self-evaluation and self-judgment – and the self-criticism and self-doubt that result from them.” Not to say that only creative people are prone to self-criticism, but Jacobs focuses on how feeling like an imposter can impact one’s ability to be creative or try things.

Whilst it’s purely anecdotal evidence, I know a lot of creative (product) people who can be their own worst critic. Full disclosure: I’m definitely one of them 🙂 It’s that inner voice telling you that your work is sh*t or, even worse, that you’re useless as a person. Self-criticism can really put (and keep) us down, not only blocking our creativity but also the ways in which we present ourselves or interact with others. In “Banish Your Inner Critic” Jacobs explores where our inner critical voice comes from and how to best manage it:

  1. Replace self-criticism with self-compassion: Jacobs points out that instead of applying self-criticism, we need to actively practice the opposite: self-compassion. Self-compassion is realising that self-criticism is the enemy and then acting to reverse its negative effects. Jacobs adds that self-compassion also helps to unlock creativity. She helpfully explains the two components of self-compassion; (1) making a conscious effort to stop self-judgment and (2) actively comforting ourselves, the same as we would do with a friend in need.
  2. Recognise your inner critical voice – Awareness of your inner critical voice (“Inner Critic”) is crucial. This then enables you to see your critical thoughts for what they are: thoughts. Jacobs shares a great template to help you unearth your critical thoughts (see Fig. 1 below). She adds that “being more aware of what your brain and mind do when sensing a potential threat in the form of being judged and receiving criticism will encourage the development of a calmer part of the mind.”
  3. Know your cognitive distortions – There are a number of so-called cognitive distortions that are relevant to the Inner Critic. Jacobs invites readers to reflect on these and assess how many of them have stuck with them (see Fig. 2 below).
  4. Seek positive confirmation – The good thing about negative confirmation bias, Jacobs points out, is that it can be flipped to create a positive full-filling prophecy too. Rather than walking around in a perpetual state of feeling that no one believes in you, you can be on the hunt for support. Take confirmation and use it as a force for good, Jacobs says, to seek out positivity rather than negativity.
  5. Stop awfulising – I know from experience that it can be easy to slip in a mindset where the worst has just happened or is about to happen. In her book, Jacobs recommends looking at the facts of the situation at hand without embellishing or minimising them as a way of trying to avoid a ‘spiralling’ effect (see Fig. 3 below).
  6. Live better through criticism – Truth be told, I used to really struggle with receiving criticism. Like most people, I still don’t love criticism, but have gotten better at taking in criticism and using it to improve. Jacobs provide a number of valuable tips to help you learn take criticism in well and use to get better at whatever you are doing (see Fig. 4 below).
  7. Move from stagnation to action – The best quote in “Banish Your Inner Critic” comes from Chetan Bhagat: “Be so busy improving yourself that you have no time to criticise others.” Jacobs makes the point that by letting go of our preoccupation with the trajectory of other people’s lives, we can transform our envy from a stagnant, blocking force into a powerful motivator for growth.

Main learning point: “Banish Your Inner Critic” is a very valuable resource for anyone suffering from imposter syndrome, wanting to better manage their critical inner voice. The book’s greatest strength is in helping you reframe your self-criticism; seeing critical thoughts for what they are and combating them with compassionate thoughts.


Fig. 1 – The critical voices in your head – Taken from: Denise Jacobs, Banish Your Inner Critic, pp. 77-78:

I can’t ______________________________________ because ______________________________________________________.

I’m not _____________________________________________________________________________________ enough.

I’m afraid that I’m _________________________ because I ______________________________________________________.

I never ____________________________________ because I always _______________________________________________.

I’m afraid that I’ll _____________________________ because I ___________________________________________________.

I can’t ________________________________________ because I’m not as _____________________________________ others.

If I __________________________________________ then people will _________________________________________________.

I shouldn’t __________________________________ because I haven’t _______________________________________________.

I _____________________________________________ because my ideas ______________________________________________.

I’m too ________________________________________________________________________________________________________.

My biggest fear around my creativity is ______________________________________________________________________.


Fig. 2 – Know your cognitive distortions – Taken from: Denise Jacobs, Banish Your Inner Critic, pp. 110-130:

  1. Mental Filter (also called selective abstraction or tunnel vision) / Magnification and Minimisation (also called the binocular trick) – You find ample evidence to support negative beliefs, but filter out any positive counterexamples.
  2. Overgeneralisation – You make a broad, sweeping negative conclusion from a single isolated occurrence and then apply to all instances of its kind, making a truism from it.
  3. Jumping to conclusions – You negatively interpret the meaning of a situation without any actual evidence or facts to support your conclusion.
  4. Mind reading – You determine that the thoughts of others toward you are unfavourable despite lacking sufficient evidence, considering other more likely possibilities, or even checking it out..
  5. Fortune telling or catastrophising – You predict that circumstances will turn out poorly, and then are convinced that your prediction is fact despite lacking supportive evidence.
  6. Emotional reasoning – You turn feelings into facts and assume that the way you feel emotionally is a reflection of reality, and ignore evidence to the contrary.
  7. All or Nothing Thinking (also called black and white, polarised or dichotomous thinking) – You look at situations in black and white categories instead of along a continuum.
  8. Should statements (also called imperatives) – You use shoulds and should nots as your main source of motivation, holding yourself to a precise and strict list of acceptable behaviour.
  9. Disqualifying / Diminishing the positive – You discount or ignore positive experiences, situations, attributes, and qualities.
  10. Personalisation – You assume responsibility for negative events and circumstances that are outside of your control, blaming yourself unnecessarily for situations without more plausible explanations for the root causes.
  11. Labelling and mislabelling – You generalise and make labels of negative characterisations of yourself and others based on perceived shortcomings and a limited set of behaviours, without considering facts otherwise.


Fig. 3 – Stop awfulising – Taken from: Denise Jacobs, Banish Your Inner Critic, p. 121:

First on a piece of paper or in a journal, write down and answer the question:

  • What I am afraid will happen?

Next, write down a response to this question:

  • What could happen?

However, instead of going into a place where your anxious thoughts push yourself to awfulise the situation, actively apply realistic optimism. Tell yourself the story of what could possibly happen using “and then …” to devise an alternative that is positive instead of the feared outcome. Build upon this new realistically optimistic story by making each of your “and then…” additions more positive until you feel better and your fear diminishes.

Use this framework:

and then ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________.

and then ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________.

and then ___________________________________________________________________________________________________________.


Fig. 4 – Curious and open – Taken from: Denise Jacobs, Banish Your Inner Critic, pp. 132-133:

  1. Breathe – Get yourself grounded and make an effort to stay relaxed so that you don’t end up blocking the information through being tense, anxious or defensive.
  2. Detach – Make an effort to detach whatever criticism you get from your self-worth. Even when it seems that a person is criticising who you are as a person, there’s a good chance that what they are actually criticising is your behaviour.
  3. Listen actively – One of the best ways to do so is to write everything down. This will help you detach from your emotions and put you more into a listening mode. Ask questions to clarify points, and make notes of items to double-check or focus when you review your notes.
  4. Get specifics – What specifically does the person think you need to improve? What are her or his thoughts and suggestions on how you can do so?
  5. Find the relevant – Take criticisms with a grain of salt. Use your powers of discernment to keep what is relevant and ignore the rest.
  6. Invite – Actively solicit constructive criticism or ask for it – and be appreciate of their suggestions.
  7. Discover – Set your intention to discover new perspectives and ideas that you may not have considered.
  8. Be curious – Approach the criticisms with curiosity. Look for what was the most interesting thing the person said. It could be that they revealed a major insight through that point.
  9. Grow – The criticism can help to shine a light on issues that you still need to resolve within yourself: fears, doubts, and insecurities.
  10. Save time and learn – Changing how you react to criticism is actually a time-saver: if you really take in the information and learn from it, you will save yourself making the same mistakes and having to try the lessons in the future.


Related links for further learning:


Book review: “Who – The A method for hiring” by Geoff Smart and Randy Street

Almost everyone I speak to complains about how hard it is to hire good product people. We talk about the low return on investment of lengthy interview processes and those product hires that “didn’t work out”. I’ve written about hiring product managers previously and shared my lessons learned about recruiting good product people. Who – The A method for hiring, published back in 2008 by Geoff Smart and Randy Street has been a very welcome addition to my learnings about hiring:

  1. It’s about “who” not about “what” – In the book, “who” refers to the people you put in place to make the “what” decisions. Who’s running your sales force? Who manages your product? Who engages with your customers? In the book, Smart and Street stress the importance of making the right hiring decisions, and how as a manager your success is largely determined by the quality of the people around you.
  2. When ‘who’ mistakes happen – Smart and Street list a number of instances where “who” mistakes happen; when managers end up hiring the wrong person for the job. They also talk about “voodoo hiring” (see Fig. 1-2 below). Their book aims to help people make better “who” decisions, and provides a proven method, dubbed the “A method” to help readers on their way.
  3. The limited value of CVs – There’s only so much candidate CVs will tell you as a hiring manager. In my experience, a CV can be a useful snapshot but often not more than that. Smart and Street describe a CV as “a record of a person’s career with all of the accomplishments embellished and all the failures removed.”
  4. Finding A players – Smart and Street define an A player as “a candidate who has at least a 90 percent chance of achieving a set of outcomes that only the top 10 percent of possible candidates could achieve.” To help find A Players, Smart and Street and their colleagues at ghSMART have developed the “A Method for Hiring” or the “A Method” for short. There are four steps to the A Method: (1) Scorecard (2) Source (3) Select and (4) Sell (see Fig. 3 below). Naturally, the hiring manager needs to feel confident about having A Players around him or her, which might not always be the case. Equally, I’d argue that it pays off to look for good B (and perhaps even C) players too. These candidates might not have achieved their A game yet, but still stand 70 percent chance of achieving key outcomes (and can learn as they go).
  5. Scorecard – The idea of having a predetermined scorecard for each role is a valuable one, since a scorecard describes the mission for the position, outcomes that must be accomplished, and competencies that fit with both the culture of the company and the role. What do you really want the person that you’re hiring to accomplish, and why? What’s the phase that your company is in, and which the person you’re hiring needs to adapt to? The scorecard consists of three parts: (1) the job’s mission (2) outcomes and (3) competencies (see Fig. 4 below).
  6. Source – The idea of sourcing is all about constantly looking for talented people, irrespective of whether your company has an imminent hiring need. As some of the people interviewed for the book explain, ‘source’ is all about constantly asking people we know to introduce us to the talented people they know and maintaining a relationship with high-potential candidates (see Fig. 6 below). You thus build up talent pool which you can use as your first port of call when hiring, thus increasing the overall velocity of your hiring process.
  7. Select – The ‘select’ element of the A Method comes down to interviewing well. Smart and Street recommend doing structured interviews in order to avoid what they call ‘voodoo hiring methods’ (see Fig. 2 below). They suggest the following steps for selecting the right candidate:  (1) Screening Interview (2) Who Interview (3) Focused Interview (4) Reference and (5) Skill-Will Bull’s-Eye (see Fig. 7 below).
  8. Sell – In their book, Smart and Street stress the importance of putting yourself in the candidate’s shoes as the key to successful selling your candidate to join your company. Care about what they care about. The book explains how candidates typically care about five things, and encourage you to make sure that you address each of these five areas until you get the person to sign on the dotted line (see Fig. 12 below). Selling doesn’t happen just at the end of the process. Instead, you ‘sell’ throughout: When you source; When you interview; The time between your offer and the candidate’s acceptance; The time between the candidate’s acceptance and his or her first day and The new hire’s first one hundred days on the job.

Main learning point: Hiring good people is easier said than done in my experience. “Who – The A Method for hiring”, however, does a great job in offering every hiring manager with key considerations to make and techniques to apply when look for  new people.


Fig. 1 – When ‘who’ mistakes happen – Taken from: Geoff Smart and Randy Street, “Who – The A method for hiring”:

Who mistakes happen when managers:

  • Are unclear about what’s needed in a job;
  • Have a weak flow of candidates;
  • Do not trust their ability to pick out the right candidate from a group of similar-looking candidates;
  • Lose candidates they really want to join their team.

Fig. 2 – Voodoo Hiring – Taken from: Geoff Smart and Randy Street, “Who – The A method for hiring”:

Top ten voodoo hiring methods:

  1. The Art Critic – Hiring people based on gut instinct.
  2. The Sponge – A common approach among busy managers is to let everybody interview a candidate, with the risk of interviewers asking candidates exactly the same questions.
  3. The Prosecutor – Many managers act like the prosecutors they see on TV and aggressively question candidates, attempting to trip them up with trick questions and logic problems.
  4. The Suitor – Rather than rigorously interviewing a candidate, some managers spend all of their energy selling the applicant on the opportunity. Suitors are more concerned with impressing than assessing their capabilities.
  5. The Trickster – Then there are the interviewers who use gimmicks to test for certain behaviours. They might throw a wad of paper on the floor, for example, to see if a candidate is willing to clean it up.
  6. The Animal Lover – Many managers hold on stubbornly to their favourite pet questions – questions they think will reveal something uniquely important about a candidate.
  7. The Chatterbox – This technique has a lot in common with the “la-di-da” interview. The conversation usually goes something like this: “How about them Yankees! Man, the weather is rough this time of year. You grew up in California? So did I!”
  8. The Psychological and Personality Tester – Asking a candidate a series of bubble-test questions like “Do you tease small animals?” or “Would you rather be at a cocktail part or the library on a Friday night?” is not useful (although both are actual questions on popular psychology tests), and it’s certainly not predictive of success on the job.
  9. The Aptitude Tester – Tests can help managers determine whether has the right aptitude for a specific role, such as persistence for a business development position, bit they should never become the sole determinant in a hiring decision.
  10. The Fortune-Teller – Just like a fortune-teller looking in a crystal ball to predict the future, some interviewers like into the future regarding the job at hand by asking hypothetical questions: “What would you do? How would you do it? Could you do it?”

Fig. 3 – “The ghSMART A Method for Hiring” – Taken from: Geoff Smart and Randy Street, “Who – The A method for hiring”:


  • Scorecard – The scorecard is a document that describes exactly what you want a person to accomplish in a role. It is not a job description, but rather a set of outcomes and competencies that define a job well.
  • Source – Finding great people is getting harder, but it is not impossible. Systematic sourcing before you have slots to fill ensures you have high quality candidates waiting when you need them.
  • Select – Select talent in the A Method involves a series of structured interviews that allow you to gather the relevant facts about a person so you can rate your scorecard and make an informed hiring decision. These structured interviews break the voodoo hiring spell.
  • Sell – Once you identify people you want on your team through selection, you need to persuade them to join. Selling the right away ensures you avoid the biggest pitfalls that cause the very people you want the most to take their talents elsewhere.

Fig. 4 – The three parts of the A Method scorecard – Taken from: Geoff Smart and Randy Street, “Who – The A method for hiring”:

  • The mission – The mission is an executive summary of the job’s core purpose. It boils the job down to its essence so everybody understands why you need to hire someone into the slot. You’ll know you have a good mission when candidates, recruiters, and even others from your team understand what you are looking for without having to ask clarifying questions. A good mission statement could for instance read: “To serve as a visionary leader who helps the bank capture market share from the competition by analysing the market and devising successful new strategies and product offerings.” Mission statements also help you avoid one of the most common hiring traps: hiring a generalist over a specialist.
  • Outcomes – Outcomes, the second part of a scorecard, describe what a person needs to accomplish in a role. If you are hiring for a sales person for instance, the scorecard should read” “Grow revenue from $25 million to $50 million by end of year three.” This is a clearly defined outcome which a sales person either can or can’t achieve. An outcome is something which a person must get done.
  • Competencies – Competencies flow directly from the first two elements of the scorecard. The mission defines the essence of the job to a high degree of specificity. Outcomes describe what must be accomplished. Competencies describe how you expect a new hire to operate in the fulfilment of the job and the achievement of the outcomes. The book lists some critical competencies for A Players (see Fig. 5 below).

Fig. 5 – Critical competencies for A Players – Taken from: Geoff Smart and Randy Street, “Who – The A method for hiring”:

  • Efficiency – Able to produce significant output with minimal wasted effort.
  • Honesty / integrity – Does not cut corners ethically. Earns trust and maintains confidences.
  • Organisation and planning – Plans, organises, schedules, an budgets in an efficient, productive manner. Focuses on key priorities.
  • Aggressiveness – Moves quickly and takes a forceful stand without being overly abrasive.
  • Follow-through on commitments – Lives up to verbal and written agreements, regardless of personal cost.
  • Intelligence – Learns quickly. Demonstrates ability to quickly and proficiently understand and absorb new information.
  • Analytical skills – Able to structure and and process qualitative and quantitative data and draw insightful conclusions from it. Exhibits a probing mind and achieves penetrating insights.
  • Attention to detail – Does not let important details slip through the cracks or derail a project.
  • Persistence – Demonstrates tenacity and willingness to go the distance to get something done.
  • Proactivity – Acts without being told what to do. Brings new ideas to the company.
  • Ability to hire A Players (for managers) – Sources, selects and sells A Players to join a company.
  • Ability to develop people (for managers) – Coaches people in their current roles to improve performance, and prepares them for future roles.
  • Flexibility / adaptability – Adjusts quickly to changing priorities and conditions. Copes effectively with complexity and change.
  • Calm under pressure – Maintains stable performance when under heavy pressure or stress.
  • Strategic thinking / visioning – Able to see and communicate the big picture in an inspiring way. Determines opportunities and threats through comprehensive analysis of current and future trends.
  • Creativity / innovation – Generates new and innovative approaches to problems.
  • Enthusiasm – Exhibits passion and excitement over work. Has a can-do attitude.
  • Work ethic – Possesses a strong willingness to work hard and sometimes long hours to get the job done. Has track record of working hard.
  • High standards – Expects personal performance and team performance to be nothing short of the best.
  • Listening skills – Lets others speak and seeks to understand their viewpoints.
  • Openness to criticism and ideas – Often solicits feedback and reacts calmly to criticism or negative feedback.
  • Communication – Speaks and writes clearly and articulately without being overly verbose or talkative.
  • Teamwork – Reaches out to peers and cooperates with supervisors to establish and overall collaborative working relationship.
  • Persuasion – Able to convince others to pursue a course of action.

Fig. 6 – How to source – Taken from: Geoff Smart and Randy Street, “Who – The A method for hiring”:

  1. Referrals from your professional and personal networks.
  2. Referrals from your employee
  3. Deputising friends of the firm
  4. Hiring recruiters
  5. Hiring researchers
  6. Sourcing systems

Fig. 7 – Select: interview steps – Taken from: Geoff Smart and Randy Street, “Who – The A method for hiring”:

  1. Screening Interview – The screening interview is a short, phone-based interview designed to clear out B and C Players from your roster of candidates. In the screening questions you can ask some of the following questions: What are your career goals? What are you really good at professionally? What are you not good at or interested in doing professionally? Who were your last five bosses, and how will they each rate your performance on a 1-10 scale when we talk to them? The whole point of the screening interview is to weed people out as quickly as possible.
  2. Who Interview – The Who Interview is designed to give you more confidence in your selection because it uncovers the patterns of somebody’s career history, which you can match to your scorecard (see Fig. 8 below for a sample Who Interview Guide). The Who Interview is a chronological walkthrough of a person’s career.
  3. Focused Interview – The Who Interview is comprehensive and will get you most of the way toward the right answer of who to hire. In the Focus Interview, you can gather additional, specific information about your candidate. In essence, you’re turning the magnification up another notch so you can give would-be hires one last look with a finer degree of granularity (see a sample Focused Interview Guide in Fig. 10 below).
  4. Reference Interview – There are three things you have to do to have successful reference interviews. First, pick the right references. Second, ask the candidate to contact the references to set up the calls. Third, conduct the right number of interviews; you personally do about four and ask your colleagues to do three, for a total of seven reference interviews (see sample Reference Interview Guide in Fig. 11 below).
  5. Skill-Will Bull’s-Eye – The goal of the “Select” step of the A Method is to gather the facts you need to decide if somebody’s skill (what they can do) and will (what they want to do) match your scorecard. This is a person’s skill-will profile. When a candidate’s skill-will profile matches up perfectly with the requirements outlined on your scorecard, your candidate hits the the skill-will bull’s-eye.

Fig. 8 – Who Interview Guide – Taken from: Geoff Smart and Randy Street, “Who – The A method for hiring”:

  1. What were you hired to do?
  2. What accomplishments are you most proud of?
  3. What were some low points during that job?
  4. Who were the people you worked with?
  5. Why did you leave that job?

Fig. 9 – ‘Master Tactics’ for the ‘Who Interview’ – Taken from: Geoff Smart and Randy Street, “Who – The A method for hiring”:

  • Interrupting – You have to interrupt the candidate. If you don’t, he or she might talk for then hours straight about things that are not at all relevant. The bad way to interrupt somebody is to put up your hand like a stop sign gesture and say, “Wait, wait, wait. Let me stop you there. Can we get back on track?” The good way to interrupt somebody is to smile broadly, match their enthusiasm level, and use reflective listening to get them to stop talking without demoralising them.
  • The Three P’s – The three P’s are questions you can use to clarify how valuable an accomplishment was in any context. The questions are: (1) How did your performance compare to the previous year’s performance? (2) How did your performance compare to the plan? (3) How did your performance compare to that of peers?
  • Push Versus Pull – People who perform well are generally pulled to greater opportunities. People who perform poorly are often pushed out of their jobs. Do not hire anybody who has been pushed out of 20 percent or more of their jobs. Push: “It was mutual.” “It was time for me to leave.” “My role shrank.” Etc. Pull: “My biggest client hired me.” “My old boss recruited me to a bigger job.” “The CEO asked me to take a double promotion.” Etc.
  • Painting a Picture – This is all about empathic imagination, which helps you move away from generic answers that don’t mean anything and toward specific details that give you real insight. You’re really trying to put yourself in the candidate’s shoes and get curious to truly understand.
  • Stopping at the Stop Signs – One of the advantages of the Who Interview in person is that you can watch for shifts in body language and other inconsistencies. The idea isn’t to gather dirt. Think of yourself instead as a biographer interviewing a subject. You want both the details and the broad pattern, the facts and the texture.

Fig. 10 – Who Interview Guide – Taken from: Geoff Smart and Randy Street, “Who – The A method for hiring”:

  1. The purpose of this interview is to talk about _______________ (Fill in the blank with specific outcome or competency such as the person’s experience selling to new customers, building and leading a team, creating strategic plans, etc).
  2. What are your biggest accomplishments in this area during your career?
  3. What are your insights into your biggest mistakes and lessons learned in this area?

Fig. 11 – Reference Interview Guide – Taken from: Geoff Smart and Randy Street, “Who – The A method for hiring”:

  1. In what context did you work with the person?
  2. What were the person’s biggest strengths?
  3. What were the person’s biggest areas for improvement back then?
  4. How would you rate his/her overall performance in that job on a 1-10 scale? What about his or her performance causes you to give that rating?
  5. The person mentioned that he/she struggled with ________________ in that job. Can you tell me more about that?

Fig. 12 – Five Things Candidates Care About – Taken from: Geoff Smart and Randy Street, “Who – The A method for hiring”:

  • Fit ties together the company’s vision, needs, and culture with the candidate’s goals, strengths, and values. “Here is where we are going as a company. Here is how you fit in?”
  • Family takes into account the broader trauma of changing jobs. “What can we do to make this change as easy as possible for your family?”
  • Freedom is the autonomy the candidate will have to make his or her own decisions. “I will give you ample freedom to make decisions, and I will not micromanage you.”
  • Fortune reflects the stability of your company and the overall financial upside. “If you accomplish your objectives, you will likely make [compensation amount] over the next five years.”
  • Fun describes the work environment and personal relationships the candidate will make. “We like to have a lot of fun around here. I think you will find this is a culture you will really enjoy.”