How do you handle situations when you have been asked to do the impossible

This type of question is a comparatively recent development in job interviews, where people are asked about real situations which aren't manageable.

The interviewers want to know how you deal with jobs that can't be done, which create major issues for employers.

Management is often confronted with problems that can't be solved and have to be controlled. Rather than unrealistically pretending these situations are working properly, they want people who know how to control them, and make things work properly despite the ongoing problems.

Say you've been asked to load an empty container ship in five minutes. It's not going to happen. It should never have even been considered possible. Yet someone's made a business decision which requires it to be done, to stay on schedule.

Yes, people are that stupid, and variations on this happen on a rather sickening daily basis. As a matter of fact, scheduling is one of the least exact sciences on Earth, and only experienced people know what the dangers are on setting ridiculous deadlines.

As you might have gathered, some poor unsuspecting soul is going to have to clean up this mess, and it will probably be you.

Congratulations, you have just been given full personal responsibility for what is probably an absurdity at best, disguised as a business management problem. You can wince a bit about it, but you usually don't have time to wince. The problem is all yours. You have to think of a way of handling it.

That's also why you've been asked the question.

They're not actually being sadists.

This question is about experience levels.

Experienced people do know how to handle situations like this. They do it on a regular basis, and often have years of savvy in how to get these things done. They're also priceless to employers, and this is exactly the sort of question that finds them.

You will be asked questions of this kind in jobs where high volumes of work and there's a lot of scheduling of turnover. You will also be asked similar questions at management level.

This is a form of crisis management, and the responsibilities extend down below middle management, so it's a middle level class of question.

Sometimes these are real crises, too, so be very thoughtful about your answers.

It's quite possible the example will be taken from actual experience.

The interviewers will be looking for a particular approach to the problem, and it'll be the one that cleaned up their crisis for them.

Faced with a so called impossible situation, the experienced person goes to work identifying the result that's supposed to be achieved.

Simple Example:

  • The time is late afternoon on a Thursday when you're given the job.
  • There are 217 contract orders for software to be shipped to clients.
  • There are 5400 different units to be picked and packed for shipping.
  • You have yourself and two people to help you.
  • Most of the orders are supposed to arrive tomorrow, under the terms of the contract. There's no way they'll arrive on time.

What do you do?

  • You check with management about notifying clients, to comply with the terms of the contract regarding deliveries.
  • You create a standard one paragraph email notification, make sure it's OK with management, and use the distribution list to create a mass mailout.
  • You assign one staff member to arranging the packaging, and the other doing the order picking.
  • You clear with management an express pickup and delivery for Friday or Monday, if possible. (Next business day is usually OK with contracts. You're also lucky, because weekends allow for transit so this stuff gets delivered on the Monday.)
  • You pitch in yourself, doing some of the picking and packing and checking orders before sealing them up.
  • You start with the big, time consuming orders first, so you're reducing volumes as you go. It's a lot of work, but it's doable.
  • You do overtime if possible to cover the rest of the work and make sure you don't get behind on that as well.
  • You make sure you get all the work done and shipped by Friday afternoon at the latest.

This is a very simple version of managing the impossible. The mistakes were already made, you have to undo the damage as much as you can, and while you're at it attend to everything else.

In some cases you have to pull rabbits out of non-existent hats.

Your obligation to the employer is to protect their interests, and do everything you can to ensure things are done properly, without creating further problems for them.

In your answer, you must refer to any management issues or considerations.

You probably know the management issues well, but think before you answer.

Be extremely conscious of the fact that this type of experience based question is the sort that regularly trips up applicants.

If you're an experienced person, this is where all that work pays off.

You will be well aware of the situations which can happen in your own field. Objectivity is the name of the game with these questions, and you must be results focused.

You will know what to do, but make sure you know how to express it clearly to the interviewers.

It's usually best to introduce your answer with your objective, the required outcome, as a way of guiding them through the rest of your answer.

Always use the story line approach, so they see what's being done, why it's being done, and how it's done.

You're also in a competitive interview environment.

If you're up against other experienced candidates, every word counts. You do have to show the interviewers that you're the better applicant. This class of question is always tricky, and the questions are designed to find good communicators, as well as good knowledge and skills.