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BY Rob Davis
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Describing Problems vs. Projects

Describing problems vs. projects in an interview is a critical key to a successful interview.

At Cameron-Brooks, we travel frequently to meet our candidates across the United States and Europe. During our trips, we spend a good chunk of time conducting and leading live in-person interview preparation workshops to help our candidates learn how to interview for top quality developmental leadership roles.  As a matter of fact, I am writing this blog from the Atlanta airport after conducting an interview preparation workshop at Fort Benning.

One of the most common interview question mix ups I encounter during workshops centers around describing problems vs. projects. Two common two questions, on the surface, seem the same but are very different.  They are “How do you manage a complex project” and “How do you solve a complex problem”?   I thought I would share on this blog post how I tackled this with the officers at my Fort Benning workshop.

What is a Project?
The quality guru, J.M. Juran, defines a project as “a problem that has been scheduled for a solution.”  A project is a multitask job that is completed just once.  It has start and end points, a scope, a budget (in most cases), stakeholders, milestones, etc.  The key to thinking about how you manage a project is you have a clearly defined end state or outcome.  In the military that might be something as simple as qualifying 100% of your unit for a rifle marksmanship range, an evolution onboard a ship or submarine, fielding a new piece of equipment, movement of equipment to the National Training Center, etc.  It is then telling your process for how you manage, plan and execute projects.

You see how describing problems vs. projects comes into play? The recruiter is looking for you to explain what your steps are in managing the project, why those steps are important, and explain how you conduct those steps in brief detail.

What is a Problem?
With the “how do you solve a complex  problem” question, what the recruiter is essentially asking you is “how do you get to the root cause of a problem and arrive at a solution?”  So, in this case, there is not yet an end state because the root cause and pending solution has not yet been identified.  For this question, the recruiter is wanting you to explain your methodology for determining the root cause of a complex problem and how you go about determining a viable solution.  For some that might be utilizing the Six Sigma DMAIC method, the 5-Why methodology, fishbone diagrams, pareto analysis, or whatever method works best for you.

Again, it is important to explain your steps, why you choose to include them in your process to solve a problem, and a brief explanation for how you conduct the step.  At this point, upon arriving at a solution, your problem solution just became a project and that is the start of the other question!

I hope this blog post helps shed some light on the differences between these two similar looking questions. Look for more interview tips here.

Rob Davis