Problem solving

The problem solving question is a bit more complicated than a recital of a simple exercise in solving a problem. The idea is to see how you work, and how you express a problem.

In many jobs, experienced people will know when another person hasn't recognized the real problem, and is dealing with something quite superficial. So this is also a test of your experience and skill levels, whether you understand the problem.

There's also a comparative factor, for interviewers, when they can see different levels of complexity in the problems, and get a good idea of skills.

It's quite impossible, and might be quite misleading, to come up with a series of generic examples of problem solving answers. Everything, from the nature of the problem, to the methods of solving, to the results, will depend on the job, and the situations.


  • Give a good example of your problem solving skills, where you're clear on all the issues,
  • Make sure you can provide a fair demonstration of your abilities which is relevant to the job you're applying for,
  • Be sure you can answer any supplementary questions about your problem
  • Be 100% clear to the interviewers in your explanation of the problem, so they understand the issues while you're telling your story.

We have to analyze the problem solving questions here, to show how the answers are constructed.

There may be endless different answers to problem solving questions.

But there are also a few characteristics where you can see how the answers are constructed to give the best possible answer:

Common requirements for problem solving questions:

  • Information content,
  • Problem analysis
  • Description of methods used
  • Relative values of solutions

Information content

What's the scenario for the problem?

Who's involved in the problem?

What's the problem?

Why is it a problem?

For whom is it a problem?

Reasonable questions, and you have to include them as the start of the answer to your problem solving question, because otherwise it won't make much sense. Interviewers will have to ask more questions, which counts against you in a way, because you weren't clear.

Your answer must operate as a story line.

This is a sales clerk, explaining a problem solving exercise.

At ABC Inc, we had a problem with a difficult complaint from a customer demanding a refund for a faulty toaster which wasn't working properly.

He said it was dangerous, so there was a potential for a real legal liability.

One sentence, includes all the elements of those questions. This sets the scene for your problem solving story, as well as giving the basic outline of the problem. The interviewers aren't going to get lost in a sudden burst of information which doesn't explain the nature of the problem.

It is a real problem, with the added information that the customer considered the toaster dangerous. This adds depth to the description of the problem, and nobody really needs to be told that dangerous appliances are a basis for potentially serious lawsuits.

Problem analysis

A problem can have a lot of possible complications. You've explained the issue with the toaster, now you need to explain any relevant considerations:

He was entitled to a refund, in any case, but we had another problem. This was a new supplier, this guy was our very first customer, so things weren't looking good. Obviously, we had to check out the faulty unit, and I was naturally concerned that this product line itself was a real risk, in terms of product safety laws.

There's a bigger issue here, beyond a simple refund, and because suppliers work on contracts, there are other legal elements involved in really solving the problem. Product safety laws could be used against the retailer, even if nobody sued them. These toasters are potentially a lot of real, expensive, trouble.

Important: In this case the problem solver is doing a very good job, and obviously knows the issues very well.

I explained the various issues to management, including my concerns about this product line, which was looking like a real problem in the making.

I got the OK, and I told the customer we were happy to give him a refund, and asked him to supply details of what had happened, which he was happy to do.

Part of the problem is now solved, and is being used to solve the rest of the problem, which relates to perhaps thousands of dollars' worth of stock, and maybe a supplier who's a problem.

Important: Notice also that management is informed of the action being taken.

This is something you should include in your answer. Doing things unilaterally, even when they're obviously right, may leave out something like needing the authority to do things.

In this case, if you're a sales clerk, you can't just give refunds to people, unless you've been given the OK, which usually comes with a few requirements from management.

You also can't go researching the employer's contracts with wholesalers. The interviewers would, probably, and rightly, ask if you had the authority to do those things, in both cases.

You might win points for initiative in dealing with the problem, but lose more points for not knowing how to handle the organizational ramifications, and cutting management out of the loop in what you were doing.

You can damage your own credibility, severely, by leaving out basic considerations like that, because the interviewers may not believe it.

Give yourself credit where it's due, but don't make it sound like you're running the workplace single handedly. Even if you're a manager, you're still working in a system.

You have to show you understand the system, in terms of solving problems.

Description of methods used

You're now solving your big problem with this supply of dangerous goods. So far you've described how you found the problem, and your first steps to your solution. Now you have to explain how you went about solving it:

We were in a real fix, with these toasters. My manager had gone and checked out our records, and we had 2,000 units in stock. They were advertised in our catalog. I suggested we remove the ones we had on display, and tell the staff to tell customers they were temporarily unavailable.

(No more information than that was given to the public, we didn't want to be telling people they were unsafe, might have been libelous.)

We decided to test them all, every one of them, in our warehouse, so it was done in a safe environment. Sure enough the first ones we tested shorted, blew out, and one actually caught fire.

I did reports on each one, and our legal advisor sent copies of our test results to the supplier, with a request for an explanation. We also notified the supplier that since these toasters were clearly unfit for sale, the contract was void.

We now use that method as our own in-house quality control with products where we receive complaints from customers.

Relative values of solutions

They couldn't really argue. We received a full refund of our contract, and fortunately our customers weren't exposed to any risk.

Now, consider how a normal sales clerk could have answered that question, compared to the actual answer:

The low value answer is:

Just a slightly more complex refund than usual, the sales clerk spotted a problem and reported it.

The high value answer is:

The sales clerk saw the real problem, which was the fact they were sitting on a possible 2,000 lawsuits, as well as possible prosecution for selling faulty electrical goods, and legal costs.

Answers to problem solving questions must have an obvious value to the employer.

The value can be profit, efficiency, system improvements or saving.

Sometimes the problem solving question is the job-getter, because the values of the answers are deciding factors.

So get your answer structured, valued, clear, and get it right.