Since solving problems is part of almost all jobs, preparing an answer to the question, “Describe a difficult problem you solved” is well-invested time. In this episode, I will share a simple, five-step approach to help you formulate a convincing answer that demonstrates that you have excellent problem-solving skills and can use these skills to deliver valuable results.
Hi and welcome to today’s episode, which is about answering the interview question, “Describe a difficult problem you solved.” Since solving problems is part of almost all jobs, preparing for these kinds of questions is well-invested time. I will share a simple, five-step approach to help you formulate a convincing answer that demonstrates that you have excellent problem-solving skills and can use these skills to deliver valuable results. As for all behavioral interview questions, we will use the STAR method to structure the answer. If you want to learn more about this method, or behavioral interview questions in general, please tune in to my previous episode.
Step 1: Identify your example.
Try to remember a situation where you successfully solved a challenging and business-critical problem. If possible, pick one that was complex and where you solving it led to quantifiable results. Now, of course, the complexity and business impact depends on your seniority and your previous roles. But your example must demonstrate that you can create value by finding solutions to business challenges. For example, it could be about dealing with a dissatisfied customer, difficult subordinates, unexpected setbacks, conflicts or ambiguity.
Step 2: Describe the situation and your task.
Cover when and where the situation occurred and what your role was. Then, describe what the problem was and why it was tough and important to solve. For example, you may have worked as a project manager at a major retailer and were responsible for a project to develop a mobile self-checkout app. Halfway through the project, one of your senior experts with unique technical knowledge became sick long-term, risking some of the product’s main features being delayed.
Step 3: Describe your actions.
Summarize the steps you took to solve the problem. It is important to cover what you did to make sure you understood it entirely, how you generated ideas to solve it and evaluated the different options. You should also cover how you implemented the solution and how you assessed the outcome. In our previous example, you may have talked to other technical experts to determine the consequences of their colleague’s illness and the product owner to understand the importance of the affected features. Based on the information gathered, you may have compared a couple of different alternatives to handle the situation and identified bringing in an external consultant as the best option. You then got your plan approved by the project’s steering committee, chose the best consultant after having vetted a couple of candidates and regularly followed up with her on the progress.
Step 4: Describe the results.
Cover whether or not you solved the problem and, if possible, quantify the business impact. Also, think about what you learned from this experience and if there was anything you would do differently. For instance, in our previous example, you may have been able to launch the product on time with all features. The stores that used the app may have increased revenue by 7%, which far outweighed the additional project costs for the consultant. And your learning may have been to always plan ahead for critical resource contingencies.
Step 5: Formulate your answer.
Put together a compelling answer by combining the outcome of the previous steps. The main focus should be on your actions and the results. For instance, a good answer based on our previous example could be, “At company X, I managed a project to develop a mobile self-checkout app for our brick and mortar stores. Halfway through the project, one of the senior experts became ill long-term. The problem was that he had the unique technical knowledge needed to develop some of the features. The first thing I did was talk to the other project resources to understand the required skills to complete the expert’s tasks and whether or not these could be covered by anyone else on the team. Then, I scheduled a meeting with the product owner to understand the importance of the affected features. Based on the information gathered, I identified three possible alternatives:
1. To ship the first version without these features.
2. To close the team’s knowledge gap by sending one of the other experts on a two-week course.
3. To hire an external consultant with the needed skills.
Then, together with the project team and the main stakeholders, I evaluated each option’s pros and cons. The outcome was that number 3 was the best alternative, since it kept the risk for further delays at a minimum and allowed for launching a complete product. After receiving approval from the project’s steering committee, and vetting a couple of candidates, I chose the best consultant. I regularly followed up with her on the progress until the end of the project. We were able to launch the product on time with all features. Thanks to the improved customer experience, the stores that used the app increased revenue by 7%, which far outweighed the additional project costs for the consultant. I learned from this experience to always plan ahead for critical resource contingencies.”
These were the five steps for answering problem solving related interview questions. Thank you for listening, and I hope this was helpful to you.