How to Answer Interview Questions Regarding Complex Projects and Complex Problems, and the Differences Between the Two

Two common interview questions Recruiters ask are, “Give me an example of a significant problem you solved,” and, “Give me an example of a project you managed.” To answer these questions, I recommend you utilize the four-part formula described in Chapter 5 of PCS to Corporate America, 3rd Edition by Roger Cameron for answering Significant Accomplishment types of questions. Additionally, answers to both of these questions will need specific details demonstrating to the Recruiter your problem solving and project management experience and abilities, depending on the question. The questions are similar, but a quote from project management guru J.M. Juran states, “A project is a problem scheduled for a solution,” effectively differentiates the two. This blog post offers tips for you to effectively answer both of these questions.

“Give Me an Example of a Significant Problem You Solved”

When a recruiter asks about a problem, he or she is asking about a process that was not working properly or getting desired results, a project that went off track, or a piece of equipment that was not operating correctly. Usually, this doesn’t mean a people problem. It’s a problem that had impact on the overall mission. Recruiters want to understand your problem solving methodologies. The mistake most candidates make is that they jump right into the answer talking about how they solved the problem, never explaining how they came to understand what happened and the root cause of the problem. The Recruiter wants to see how you determine the root cause of a problem, evaluate courses of action, and conduct a pro and con analysis or cost benefit analysis on the potential solutions, and understand your rationale for selecting the solution and how you tested the solution and implemented it.

To prepare for this question, list every complex problem you successfully resolved. For each problem, determine why it was significant and difficult to solve. Next, write down the steps you went through to determine the root cause and how you developed potential solutions (Recruiters want to see here that you got your team involved and solicited them for ideas), and describe how you resolved it including the testing, implementation and lessons learned review with your team. I highly recommend you become familiar with Six Sigma tools – such as DMAIC (Define, Measure, Analyze, Innovate, and Control), asking “Why?” Five Times, and Fishbone Diagrams – and incorporate them into your answer. Become comfortable talking about how you solve problems. Remember, Corporate America likes problem solvers.

“Give Me an Example of a Project You Managed”

With this question, the Recruiter wants to know in detail how you determined the course of action to solve the problem, the planning process for the testing and implementation, and the execution to achieve results. In other words, the problem-solving answer focuses on the root cause analysis, and the project answer focuses on course of action development, testing and implementation. A common mistake, just as in the problem-solving answer, is that candidates completely skip over explaining their thought process and how they planned the project, and immediately jump into explaining how they executed it.

In the planning process, you want to highlight establishing the project objective, communicating it to your team and developing timelines and milestones. You should be familiar with project management concepts such as project scope, Work Breakdown Structures (WBS), and Critical Path. These project terms and others are explained in excellent detail in Project Management, 4th Edition by Joseph Heagney, which is included in our Reading List in Appendix B. You will also want to highlight how you developed the project team, whether assigned to you or you chose the team members, and how you delegated project assignments.

In the execution step, Recruiters will want to hear how your actions catalyzed the project team to stay on time and within budget and scope. Additionally, and a critical component, you will need to discuss how you mitigated risk. What is risk in a project? Instead of a textbook definition, I share with you how one of our company Recruiters explains it: “Anything that causes the project to deviate from the desired results, go over budget or time, or is outside of the scope.” In other words, anything that could throw it off track. I smile every time a junior military officer asks me what they should say as to how they managed risk because you do this all the time and almost every day! It’s just that you are typically looking at it from loss of life, injury or damage to equipment. This is not what the Recruiters want, but the steps you use are exactly the same. First, evaluate the overall risk, determine all of the risks that contribute to it, and then with your team, determine how probable and catastrophic each risk is. This will then allow you to prioritize putting in place risk mitigation measures and assigning responsibility to manage it. I cannot emphasize enough that you must demonstrate how you mitigated risk in a project accomplishment.

Just like the problem-solving answer, I recommend you also explain at the end of the accomplishment the results you achieved and that you conducted a lessons learned review with your team for future projects.

Occasionally, a candidate comments to me that they have really never done a project. I say, “Absolutely you have; you just did not call it that.” Let me give you some examples of excellent projects you have done: planned and led a unit and troop movement from one location to another; planned and led a training event for 31 personnel that resulted in all Sailors becoming proficient in specific tasks; and, led $20,000 maintenance effort that repaired a diesel engine in two days. The following are projects, but not ones that Recruiters want to hear about: planned and organized unit family day; led unit’s Combined Federal Campaign fundraising efforts, exceeding goal by 20%; and, organized unit fun run, increasing cohesiveness. While these are projects, they do not relate to Corporate America and do not impact on the bottom line result as well as the others I listed.

For both questions, the Recruiter will absolutely want to hear how you incorporated your team, whether made up of subordinates or peers, into solving the problem and executing the project. Even though the answers must be about your actions, you need to discuss how you asked for their input, developed others, delegated responsibility and followed up with your team. Finally, you must give them credit for their great work and compliment them in your answer; otherwise, you might come across with too much ego or too “I” oriented.

Joel Junker