Tell us about a time when something went wrong

This is about mistake management, and experience. It can be a quality control question, but it's more about the applicant's ability to handle adversity.

The question is, specifically, about a situation you couldn't handle. Don't try and duck the question, either, because you'll be brought back to that point.

To clarify a lot of misconceptions, what the interviewers want is a case where you didn't get it right.

This is called establishing an idea of your competencies, which is a bit misleading. What they actually need to know is your reaction to a problem where you couldn't deal with it, or made some sort of mistake. The answer provides information across a range of possible areas of interest to the panel.

Note: You can always ask the interviewers for more details about what they want in your answer. If you're not sure, do that.

The standard wisdom about this question is that it's to show that you learned from your problems, which is quite correct.

It's also an indicator of your experience and your learning curve. Not to get too psychological, experience is always relevant, and your example might be a very good source of information.

The fundamentals:

  • The example you give is up to you.
  • As long as it's in the subject range the interviewers want, it's OK.
  • It has to be relevant to the job.
  • It has to be factual. (Never invent stories, it creates more holes than it fills.)
  • It does not have to be an admission of guilt, or traumatic.

Example

The job is an IT helpdesk for a big company. The interviewee has been asked Tell us about a time when something went wrong? He's been told the answer is supposed to be about a situation where he couldn't manage things on the job.

Understandable enough question. In a job where these guys are the fixers, and they can't do their jobs, it's exactly what you need to know.

Important: Again, we're talking about structured answers, so the interviewers can follow the development of your answer. If they can't, you might as well be talking to yourself.

Background

This is the scene setter in answer to that situation:

I'd been working at ABC for a few months, and I discovered one day that I hadn't been really busy before. All of a sudden, we got calls from everywhere at once.

We got 40 calls in half an hour. The system, as far as we knew was OK, but it was all local problems, databases crashing, computers on the blink, software problems, hardware problems, the whole range of possibilities, all at once.

It was only me and an intern, naturally, that day, and I have to say, I got completely lost. I had no idea how to prioritize my responses, what took precedence over what, whose needs were greater, or any of the basics. Meanwhile, the whole place was coming unstuck, and it was my problem.

Things have obviously become unmanageable, the situation is fully explained, no need to draw the interviewers a map.

Competency issues

Now, the handling issues of this situation have to be addressed.

I decided to ask for some guidance, because as far as I could see, I was likely to get something wrong, almost immediately, if I didn't have some clear priorities. The IT manager wasn't in that day, so I went straight to the Business Manager, and explained the situation, and asked what he wanted done. I felt like a fool, but I was really worried about making a mistake.

I'd made a guess about what should be done. But with only the intern to help, and him basically a learner, he could only do the computer issues. Everything else was up to me, as I explained to the Business Manager.

The Business Manager, fortunately for my peace of mind, didn't even blink. He told me the databases were the priority, starting with Accounts, so that's what we did, and the intern cleared up the computers pretty quickly, and was able to help me with getting the databases back up and running. Fortunately we didn't lose any data, but I was glad when it was over.

The competency question here is answered by showing the applicant knew when he was out of his depth, got guidance from management, and was given the right priorities. Anything else probably would have been wrong, with the databases crashing.

The interviewers have been shown that this applicant does know when to yell for help, and correctly identified the real problems, even if unable to solve them for himself.

Learning from experience

This part of the answer is important, and shows the applicant has gained valuable understanding of the role and the responsibilities of the position.

I really learned from that experience. I'm competent enough as a helpdesk person, but that day showed me a lot, about what systems management is really all about.

The minute I realized I was responsible for all of these things, it was a real eye opener. Can't say I enjoyed the experience, I was very worried, but now I know what my job's there for, and what I need to do.

I also learned a lot about how IT interacts with organizations. I've actually done some advanced courses in helpdesk work, to improve my management skills in that area, as a result of that experience…

From here on, the applicant is fine. He learned, his concepts of his work and responsibilities were improved. He now understands his role better, and is getting training in skills in that area, which the interviewers will consider is a good move.

There are any number of possible situations, but the basic approach of answering the question is usually pretty much the same.

  • Describe the situation, clearly
  • Explain the difficulties and competency issues
  • Explain what was done
  • Explain what you learned

It's not really all that difficult to deal with this question and add some positive information for yourself during the interview.

Think about what you're going to use as an example.

Make sure your answer is very clear, and you come up with a positive result.