Hypothetical problem solving questions in job interview

Some jobs are all about problems. These are actual problem solving jobs, and the demand is for clarity of thought. There's one further type of problem solving question which needs to be seen in context with the interviewers' need to explore skill sets.

The hypothetical problem solvers are potentially the toughest of all. The interviewee no longer has the choice of answer, and has to hit the ground running at top speed, with an objective answer.

What if you were in a situation where….?

Let's start with the obvious. The question needs to be defined in the same way you defined your own example. You need enough information to give an informed answer.

In some cases, you'll find that you don't have that information from the question itself. Your interviewer wants to see if you recognize the need to identify the problem effectively, and how you intend to do that.

You can ask for further information, but if you don't get it, you have to formulate a way of getting it as part of the answer. That's actually pretty relevant, because often defining a problem is the problem. People know what's going wrong at their end, but can't find out why it's happening at the other end, and these questions reflect that.

Added to which, you have to define a solution, and explain why it's the answer to the problem.

You have to approach the answer systematically.

It's similar to the above example, but with some important differences.

Defining the problem

  • What's the criteria for solving the problem, i.e., your objectives?
  • How do you show this is the right solution?
  • What information do you need to do that?
  • How do you organize operational matters to solve the problem and achieve your objectives?
  • How do you implement your solution?
  • Is there a cost benefit, or other benefits, and if so, what?

This may sound like a long piece of string, but if you keep it all clear, it can be done with roughly the same number of sentences as the points you need to make to answer the question.

  • What's the criteria for solving the problem, i.e., your objectives? What needs solving, and what's the happy ending?
  • Why is this the right approach? You're showing how this solves the problem as a synopsis.
  • What information do you need to do that? This is where you show your ability to research a problem, pin down the issues, and fit that in to your solution.
  • How do you organize operational matters to solve the problem and achieve your objectives? Another practical part of the question, you do know how you want to organize your work here.
  • How do you implement your solution? This is where you're applying your solution, show methods.
  • Is there a cost benefit, or other benefits, and if so, what? This is about the results of your solution. You can get specific about this part of the question. You don't need an accounts department to identify cost savings, or other benefits, which may range from better client relationships to improved efficiency to having a built-in trouble-shooting team in your sales department.

So here's a hypothetical question:

You're asked what you'd do about a lot of complaints in your whitegoods section, which is causing an epidemic of refunds to customers:

What's the criteria for solving the problem, i.e., your objectives? Reducing the number of complaints to zero.

Why is this the right approach?Because the problem reflects possibly serious issues in the section's goods, which may include legal liabilities and major contract problems with suppliers.

What information do you need to do that?

You need:

  • Working quality controls,
  • Sales staff to monitor complaints issues and brands,
  • An assessment of legal liabilities,
  • Assess the real cost of refunds to customers
  • Contract reviews

How do you organize operational matters to solve the problem and achieve your objectives?

Conduct staff briefings,
Set up a system for monitoring complaints
Make sure that management is fully aware of the issues,
Cost your solution

How do you implement your solution?

Using information from the monitoring system to identify problem products, obtained you report to management and recommend remedial action.

This may include termination of supplier contracts or enforcement of contract terms for defective products. Contractor may be held liable for cost of refunds.

Is there a cost benefit, or other benefits, and if so, what?

Cost benefits:

  • Reduced liability for refunds
  • Reduced expenses incurred in dealing with customer complaints
  • Improved efficiency in monitoring systems
  • Contract enforcement reduces cost to company
  • Quality controls on goods reduce cost of liabilities

Other benefits

  • Improved customer relations
  • Quality control and new monitoring system prevents future issues of this kind
  • Business reputation is enhanced
  • Staff experience and knowledge base is improved
  • Management has a reliable, effective, complaints system

Hypothetical questions are useful for interviewees as a rehearsal for problem solving questions generally. You can test your own answers, and refine them to give maximum clarity.

Problem solving questions are usually about perfectly normal issues where you need to