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Answering Behavioral Questions: Problem Solving

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The latest in our continuing series on how to answer the most common behavioral interview questions.

Tell Me About Your Problem-Solving Skills


What kind of behavioral interview questions can you expect on your next job interview? Next up on the list of popular competencies that hiring managers ask about (see also leadership, teamwork, and conflict): problem solving.

Behavioral Interviewing Refresher

Behavioral interview questions are the ones that ask you for specific examples of past work experiences. Studies have shown that the best way for hiring managers to predict future job performance is by understanding past performance.

These behavioral questions typically start with “Tell me about a time…” or “Give me an example of…” Each question focuses on a desired competency area (a few examples: communication skills, time management, creativity).

Read our Behavioral Interview Questions 101 Guide for more.

What Do They Mean By Problem-Solving?


Most jobs require problem-solving skills. One could argue that SOME jobs consist of nothing but solving problems (engineering, customer service, tax attorney, to name a few).

Broad definition: “Problem-solving skills” relate to your ability to identify issues, obstacles, and opportunities and then develop and implement effective solutions.

Clearly, there are many different types of problem solving — and different fields and types of companies prize different aspects of problem solving. This is why some candidates stumble when trying to answer this question.

Here are just some of the competency areas that can be considered part of “problem solving:”

• Initiative — You step up and take action without being asked. You look for opportunities to make a difference.
• Creativity — You are an original thinker and have the ability to go beyond traditional approaches.
• Resourcefulness — You adapt to new/difficult situations and devise ways to overcome obstacles.
• Analytical Thinking — You can use logic and critical thinking to analyze a situation.
• Determination — You are persistent and do not give up easily.
• Results-Oriented — Your focus is on getting to the desired outcome — solving the problem.

As always, it’s important to thoroughly review the job description and try to understand what types of problems you would be solving in the role. This analysis will help you choose the examples from your past that are most likely to wow your interviewer (read on for more on how to do that).

Why Interviewers Ask About Problem Solving


Hiring managers ask behavioral questions about problem solving to get a better understanding of how you work.

Are you a go-getter who proactively looks for ways to contribute? Are you someone who can be counted on to help the team perform better? Will you step up to improve things or sit around waiting for instructions?

The interviewer is likely looking for a general problem-solving orientation to your personality. For many jobs, the hiring manager is also looking for a proven track record in addressing the types of challenges that are common in the role.

For example, a customer service representative should be able to deal with an upset customer. A project manager should be able to handle a deadline change. A senior-level operations person should be able to fix an inefficient process.

Remember that you are probably competing for the job with many other qualified candidates. You probably all look pretty good on paper.

But which of you is most likely to step up and excel — to make the hiring manager look good and make her job easier? I’d always prefer to hire the proven problem solver — often even over someone with more education or experience.

Behavioral Questions About Problem Solving


Here are some popular behavioral questions related to the competency of problem solving:

• Tell me about a situation where you had to solve a difficult problem.

• Describe a situation in which you found a creative way to overcome an obstacle.

• Tell me about a time that you identified a need and went above and beyond the call of duty to get things done.

• Tell me about a time when you came up with a new approach to a problem.

• What’s the most innovative new idea that you have implemented?

• Tell me about two improvements you have made in the last six months.

• What was the best idea you came up with at your last job?

Describe a time when you anticipated potential problems and developed preventive measures.

• Please describe a time when you faced a significant obstacle to succeeding with an important work project or activity.

• Tell me about a time when you had to analyze information and make a recommendation.

You’ll hear other variations as well (please share your favorites and/or least favorites in the comments).

How to Answer Behavioral Questions About Problem Solving


You probably solve many problems in a typical week on the job. If you haven’t prepared in advance, this type of behavioral question can throw you because it can be hard to pull up a strong example (and all of the relevant details) on the fly.

I highly recommend preparing a few stories about your greatest problem-solving hits. Think of the most impressive challenges that you’ve overcome, the most creative approaches, the solutions that made the biggest difference for the organization. These can be job-specific problems or higher-level strategic issues.

As always, use the STAR format as a framework for your story. The STAR format will help you focus your thoughts and turn your example into an interesting (non-rambling) and convincing (impressive) story.

Keep in mind that you don’t want to write and memorize a script. With the STAR format, you can simply capture a few bullet points for each of the key aspects of your story (Situation/Task, Approach, and Results). This will allow you to keep your example concise while still hitting all of the key points that make you look good.

Note: Big Interview has more information on structuring powerful STAR stories — and our Answer Builder tool will walk you through the process quickly and easily.

Sample Answer — “Tell Me About a Time You Had to Solve a Challenging Problem.”

Here’s an example that shows how the STAR format can be used specifically to detail a problem-solving experience

S/T (Situation/Task)

— Give a brief overview of the project or situation. Provide only enough background to give context and help your interviewer understand the difficulty and importance.

Example Situation/Task Bullets

• In my role as Business Development Manager at XYZ Inc., I was responsible for a team of five tasked with organizing all of our client events.

• As you may know, XYZ Inc. is a top provider of enterprise security software.

• Our client events are key to driving revenue. We host conferences and other events that feature expert speakers on key issues in the industry.

• These events help us to attract prospective new clients and also to retain our existing top clients.

• Unfortunately, we noticed that event attendance dropped by almost 15% from 2011 to 2012 and that customer retention also dropped during that time period.

Why We Like Them

This is a nice concise overview of the candidate’s role, what the business problem was, and why it was important to the organization.

Notice that the candidate included a brief description of the company’s business and her team’s area of responsibility. This may not always be necessary, but don’t assume that the hiring manager knows all about your former company if it’s not a household name. I see this a lot with my coaching clients — they don’t provide enough information about the context of the problem and lose the listener.

Tip: Don’t give in to the temptation to pile on the details. You don’t need to fill the interviewer in on all of the different events and locations and agendas and speaker line-ups. You don’t have to share the history of the business development team or the detailed methodology behind tracking attendance. Stick to what’s relevant.

A (Approach)

— Once you’ve set up the problem, it’s time to walk through the key actions that you took to address it. What exactly did you do and why?

Example Approach Bullets

• When I sat down to start planning the 2013 event schedule, I knew that it would be critical to get attendance back to at least 2011 levels.

• I sat down with my team members and I also interviewed our top sales representatives. I had some ideas about why attendance had dropped, but I wanted to look at it from all angles. Our sales reps felt like we could do a better job marketing the events through social media.

• We also sent out a questionnaire to past attendees and partners and asked for their input on how we could improve our events. In the feedback, we saw some key themes emerging — our clients had great ideas for new topics and speakers and we also saw a clear desire for more structured networking as part of the events.

• Based on this internal and external feedback, I was able to revamp the event agendas to include additional topics and additional opportunities for networking.

• I then created a whole new marketing plan, including a social media marketing component, to promote the new and improved agendas for 2013. We brought in a social media consultant to help us amp up exposure on both LinkedIn and Twitter.

Why We Like Them

He gives us a step-by-step breakdown of how he analyzed the problem and how he came up with solutions. He makes it clear that he took initiative to understand the causes of the issue, listened to constructive feedback, made decisions, and took action.

R (Results)

— Remember that a good STAR interview story always features a happy ending. The last part of your answer should describe the positive result(s) of the actions that you took. Hard numbers are always especially impressive (increased revenue by 41%, came in 20% under budget or 2 weeks ahead of schedule), but anecdotal results can also be powerful (My client said I was a hero, my VP gave me a raise based on my stellar performance).

Example Results Bullets

• We saw the impact of our changes right away. We saw a lot of buzz on LinkedIn and Twitter and had a record number of advance registrations for our first big event of 2013.

• For that event, we saw increased attendance of more than 25% over the previous year. We also saw a huge improvement in our event evaluation scores.

• In particular, attendees really enjoyed the new networking component and over 75% said they would be very likely to recommend the event to a colleague.

• Internally, we got lots of great feedback from sales and from senior management. I was actually singled out by the CEO and asked to present an overview of my approach to his senior staff meeting.

Why We Like Them

This is indeed a happy ending. The candidate covers a couple of different positive outcomes:

• Increasing event attendance by 25%. The candidate exceeded his goal of turning around the falling attendance.
• Improving client evaluations of the event. It is particularly impressive that more than 75% said they would recommend the event.
• Impressing the CEO and the senior team.

Tip: It’s nice to have specific metrics around increased attendance and client evaluations, but the anecdotal results are also strong in this example. The CEO’s recognition shows that the project was important and that the results were valued by the company.

More Tips for Handling Behavioral Questions About Problem Solving

1) Select a Strong Example:

Choose an example that truly demonstrates your problem solving skills at their best. Don’t settle for a lame or boring problem — or one that makes you look bad. (“I kept oversleeping and getting to work late, so I decided to buy a better alarm clock.”)

Go with examples that are relevant for the job description. If you are interviewing for a job with a project management component, choose a time when you overcame an obstacle on an important project. If the posting stresses analytic skills, go with that time you used your Excel macro skills to save the day.

Don’t try to skate by with generalities like, “I consider myself a great problem solver. I solve problems every day in my job.” You’re not answering the question. Pick an example to illustrate your point.

Avoid raising red flags by talking about problems that you caused or negatively contributed to. Remember that you want to be the hero in your interview stories whenever possible (we’ll talk about responding to behavioral questions about negative experiences in a future post).

2) Be Specific About Your Actions

To stand out from the crowd, you need to provide enough detail to give a sense of who you are and how you think. Many of my coaching clients have made the mistake of rushing through their stories and leaving out the most interesting and memorable details. Good stories offer an opportunity to connect with your interviewer. Give them some details that they can relate to.

Of course, you must also keep your story concise. It is easy to wander off into extraneous details if you haven’t prepared your stories in advance. The goal is to find a nice balance between interesting detail and conciseness. The beauty of the STAR format is that it keeps you focused.

Reminder: The STAR format isn’t about scripting and memorizing stories (and it’s certainly not about fiction writing). The example above is more scripted than you want or need. We did it this way to illustrate how the final delivery might sound.

When preparing your own STAR stories, it’s not necessary to write complete sentences with clean transitions. Just jot down the rough bullet points for each section. You want to create a framework that ensures you hit your key points, but your delivery will likely be a little bit different each time.

3) Practice

If you’re a regular reader, you know how we feel about practice. Over several years working with thousands of job seekers, I have seen the magic of practicing for the job interview, especially when it comes to answering behavioral questions.

I know that practice interviewing can feel awkward, but please don’t skip this step. It really does make a difference. Academic studies and my own experience consistently show that the candidates who practice land more job offers. Practice makes you more eloquent and more confident and will considerably increase your odds of getting hired.

Have any additional thoughts or questions? Leave a comment below.

hell-comic

Humor: Here’s a chimp exhibiting classic problem-solving techniques. Enjoy.

Main Photo Credit: Tomasz Stasiuk
Cartoon Strip Credit: FeelAfraidComic

Written by

Pamela Skillings

Pamela Skillings is co-founder of Big Interview. As an interview coach, she has helped her clients land dream jobs at companies including Google, Microsoft, Goldman Sachs, and JP Morgan Chase. She also has more than 15 years of experience training and advising managers at organizations from American Express to the City of New York. She is an adjunct professor at New York University and an instructor at the American Management Association.

12 Comment to Answering Behavioral Questions: Problem Solving

  • resmar

    great input but I’m always wondering what would you consider an appropriate answer for a recent graduate ?

  • resmar

    great input but I’m always wondering what would you consider an appropriate answer for a recent graduate ?

  • resmar

    great input but I’m always wondering what would you consider an appropriate answer for a recent graduate ?

  • resmar

    great input but I’m always wondering what would you consider an appropriate answer for a recent graduate ?

  • Edwin Candelaria

    E. Candelaria

    1. Not sure what the four steps are even after reading the article.
    2. Best way to approach behavioral questions is using the Star method
    3. I was working for a hospital and my Director had assigned us floors throughout the hospital for us to maintain, and while the other guys were only assigned 1 floor each I was given 3 instead, So I questioned him about it because I thought it was unfair to me. So he had answered me back by saying he was more confidant in me to be able to handle the task than my co-workers, and know that the jobs needed to get done throughout the floors would be accomplished because of my military experience had prepared me to handle many situations at the same time.

  • The competency question I most hate, and find most difficult to answer, is the accursed: “TELL ME ABOUT A TIME WHEN YOU HAD TO ANALYSE COMPLEX DATA/INFORMATION AND MAKE A DECISION FROM IT.”

  • Another competency question I loathe is, “DESCRIBE A TIME WHEN YOU HAD TO MAKE A DIFFICULT DECISION.” They ALWAYS want you to go into more detail, even though you know damn well you have gone into EVERY detail you can recall about the action you took!

  • Asfarkhan Patel

    During my initial days as a Project Engineer at Bechtel Corporation Inc, I noticed that I was having hard time in getting beginning and completion dates of activities, status of underway activities and issues of any ongoing activities which I should know as a Project Engineer.

    Therefore I recommended a Pulse Meeting on my Project where all department representatives meet for 5 to 15 minutes where the beginning
    and completion of project activities were reported, the status of any
    activities that are underway was communicated to the rest of the project
    management team and Issues on any of the ongoing activities were identified.

    However, this practice when implemented gave rise to the issue resolution meeting.

    The issue resolution meeting was immediately followed by the Pulse meeting, but it was clearly a separate meeting and those project team members who are only required were allowed to attend.

  • Wow! This is amazing

  • Randy Lahey

    This sure sounds like something that never happened. Also, no one cares. And military service really just means you’ll be a subservient employee who will do what they’re told. The military is great at creating mindless robots.

  • Donna Badiou

    How do you answer that

  • latoya

    describe a time when you had to deal with change on the job?