STAR model

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The STAR model is popular in the field of business communication, and is used for business presentations, and other business contexts. It can be particulary useful for handling more challenging questions in job interviews, such as situational, analytical, and behavioral questions. When faced with a challenging question, the task, thinking process and responses can be broken down into more easily manageable segments, so that a person can easily formulate a more coherent, systematic response -- as opposed to having to develop an answer on the spot without thinking, leading to a less coherent response. This can provide a simple mental framework to help formulate and structure coherent answers to difficult questions, especially for interview situations.

The types of interview questions here include the following.

  • Behavioral or experiential questions: Quesions about how one acted in past situations, or how one gained a particular skill.
  • Situational questions: Questions about how one would act in a hypothetical situation, i.e., a workplace situation.
  • Analytical questions: Problem-solving or brain-teaser questions designed to test an applicant's analytical and creative thinking skills.

1 Components

The STAR model consists of the following simple elements.

Situation     Describe the situation, or more specifically, define the problem to be solved – the problem, the background, and in particular, the challenges you face.
Task Explain what is/was needed to be done – specific goals, tasks, demands, and processes that were/are needed. That is, define the main objective or goal.
Action Describe specifically what you and/or your team did (or would do), how you went about (or would go about) finding solutions. That is, define the specific steps to be taken in order to achieve the objective.
Results Describe the outcomes of your actions; this could be products or services that were developed or improved, accomplishments, the decisions that were made, how decisions were implemented, what you learned, and the benefits of your work. Or describe the expected outcome of the actions, including costs and benefits.

1.1 Optional subcomonents

In explaining these, some possible subcomponents of the above categories might include the following elements.[1]

  1. Strategy, e.g., the company’s goals, project goals, and specific ways to achieve those goals
  2. People: human resources (the people on your team, those above and below you who were involved), and stakeholders
  3. Stakeholders: These are people who are affected by, or would have some interest in the project. This can include your supervisors, other employees, investors, customers, clients, vendors (other companies that buy or sell products or services to your company), the general public, or anyone that would be affected by your actions
  4. Structure: The power structures involved, and organizational design, e.g., the makeup of your team, who made decisions, supervisors or managers over you, those working under you; how decisions were made, how people worked together. For example, on your team, did people play different roles?
  5. Processes: The processes involved, e.g., how your teamed brainstormed, and how you implemented your ideas, and how you checked on them (quality control)

2 Examples

2.1 Weak examples

The following responses do not attempt to follow the STAR model. The responses seem unprepared and lacking coherence.

Q: How would you handle conflicts with a coworker?
A: Well, if I had difficulty with a coworker, I would meet him/her in private to discuss the matter.”

Q: Tell us about a time when you faced a difficult challenge.
A: I once had a disagreement with my best friend in high school, which was very stressful. But eventually, I had to let the friendship go, and I moved on with my life.

These responses are quite brief, do not say much, and do not demonstrate the interviewee’s communication skills or other personal skills. The respondent does not begin by carefully defining the problem or objective, or providing specific, actionable, concrete steps. The description of the steps and the outcome was too simplistic to really say anything positive about the applicant.

Also, a high school example is not really good for an interview. Maybe in response to a question about your background, it might be relevant to talk about high school or before, but it should be very brief. For a skill or experiential question, talking about high school may seem less relevant, or even trite. In an interview, you should be able to talk meaningfully about experiences from your adult life, during or after college.

2.2 Proper STAR examples

The following responses are more thoughtful and organized, due to their reliance on the STAR model.

Question: Tell me about a time when you had to work under great pressure, or worked on a challenging project. How did you handle the challenge?

I was part of a software developer team. Our company had to redesign the CRM (consumer relation management system)1 very quickly to fix security problems and problems that customers were having with the company website.

Task We had to fix security problems, and make it easier for customers to manage their online accounts, purchasing, personal info, and order tracking.
Action Our team brainstormed and made decisions on how to improve the website. We collected some data from customers, including complaints that customers left on the website. I acted as a project manager and led the team in our collaboration. I also served as the UX design expert to help redesign the website, sought advice from the team members for some very helpful suggestions, and we brought on an expert from the company’s IT department. We engaged in several brainstorming sessions to make decisions and execute our plans.
Result We were able to brainstorm ideas for improving the site that would be practical and feasible. We were able to roll out an improved website on time. Website traffic increased by 10%, and customers left positive responses about the redesign. We randomly surveyed 1200 customers about the changes, and their responses were overwhelmingly positive.

For a challenging interview question (especially analytical, experiential, or situational questions), be sure to clearly define the problem or situation, and the objective, and then clearly describe the steps taken (or steps to be taken) and the outcome (or expected outcome). The way you define the problem, objective, and steps to be taken should be fairly original, thoughtful, unique, or interesting. Basically, you want to provide responses that demonstrate your critical thinking skills, communication skills, interpersonal skills, and other soft skills. Here are examples of appropriate responses.[2]

Describe a mistake that you once made at work, and the results.

During my time as a ___ at my company, I missed an important project deadline due to unclear communication with my colleagues. As soon as it became clear that we could not meet the deadline, I contacted all of the stakeholders in the project -- my team members, supervisor, and the client -- to make it clear that we were working hard to resolve the situation, and when they could expect the project to be completed. We put in the additional hours needed to complete the assignment, and I put in the most hours, since it was ultimately my mistake. Afterwards, I set up a shared spreadsheet for all future projects that made deadlines and expectations clear, with clearly defined roles for different persons, and it showeed the status of each assignment at any given time. I’ve never missed a deadline since then.

Tell me about a time when you had to use your creativity to solve a problem.

I worked at an HR firm where we once had to help the managment of a company that was struggling to determine the causes of its high level of employee turnover. At my supervisor's suggestion, I undertook some data analysis to identify any trends or patterns indicating the likely causes. I created an anonymous staff questionnaire that employees were able to complete online, with both close-ended questions about job satisfaction, and open-ended questions. The responses showed that the staff were unhappy the lack of adequate training and development that were needed for them to do what was expected of them, including how to use some newer software tools. Many respondents also felt that it was difficult to talk to management. The client used these findings to make changes that helped to reduce their employee turnover by a third over the next six months.

Tell me about a time when you helped or supported a colleague who was struggling.

A colleague who had only recently joined the team was having some difficulties with using reporting software. Since I was familiar with this software, and older software that he had probably used before, I provided him with some ongoing training and support, and since then, he’s been using the software proficiently and has helping our team by providing very helpful analyses and reports.

Tell us about something you tried in your job that didn’t work. How did you learn from it?

I once worked in customer service at a local health club. Since the club consisted of a full gym, sauna, and swimming facilities, it was more expensive than other health clubs, so we had to work hard to sell club memberships. We had the idea of offering one-time month-long memberships. However, not enough people who took out these temporary memberships followed up by purchasing longer-term memberships, so this was not cost-effective for the business. We therefore switched to making our shortest contract six months long, and found that this did a better job of attracing new members and keeping the health club profitable.

Tell me about a time you knew you were right, but still had to follow directions or guidelines.

The deadline for an important report was looming, so I worked with my other team members to finalise and quantify the market research that we’ had agreed to conduct. I did have concerns, however, about the relevance of the date ranges used in our planned research, and so raised this at a team meeting. We were able to make some good changes to the existing format to help to prevent the same situation arising again, and decided to conduct similar research in the future over a longer period of time, to ensure more effective results.

3 See also

  1. Job interview question types
  2. Job search red flags
  1. Galbraith, Jay R. The STAR Model.
  2. These are adapted from examples on a job interview website: Job interview questions: How to answer them.