Tell us about how you solved a problem at work in job interview

Before you even do the interview, run this one through your mind. You'll find you have a selection of answers, problems you have solved, and there'll be a few standouts, where you got a good result.

The best choice is the one that shows your range of skills effectively. That will tend to be one of the more complex situations, so you need to express your answer very clearly.

This is storytelling in its most literal sense. Assume you're explaining the situation to people who just don't know the basics. Your information quality has to be good, and you have to tell the story so there's no need to ask any further questions.

1. Define the problem

  • What was the background situation?
  • Why was this a problem?
  • How was the problem affecting your employer?
  • What were the issues?
  • What was the degree of difficulty?

2. Define your role in solving the problem

  • Why was it your problem?
  • What was your involvement?
  • How did you come up with the solution?
  • What was your solution?
  • Who gave the OK to your solution?
  • How did you implement the solution?

3. Define the result

  • What was the effect of your solution?
  • Who benefited? In what way did they benefit?
  • Was your solution adopted as the way to handle these problems in future?
  • What sort of recognition did you get for your solution?
  • Doesn't leave out much, does it?

    This sort of question relates to a professional skill everyone uses, every day, at work and in any social situation. It's an essential form of communication.

    Again- You're doing exactly what you'd do in a work environment, explaining a situation to your boss or someone who needs to be briefed.

    In the workplace, you don't give a scattergun summary of the situation. You give a good, meaningful, synopsis. You work on clarity as the main tool to get your message across, because that's the only way it will get across. You don't leave out relevant details. You don't digress into side issues, if you can help it.

    So let's go through the process:

    How to define the problem.

    Keep it clear, and as simple as you can. Start with basic facts.

    • What was the background situation? This is the situation description. There was a problem, because…..
    • Why was this a problem? The problem existed because….
    • How was the problem affecting your employer? The employer was affected by the problem because….
    • What were the issues? This is the mechanics of the problem, explaining the difficulty and why the solution was required.
    • What was the degree of difficulty? How complex was the problem? Did it involve use of professional ability, did it show innovative ideas, was it something which shows your real skills?

    You can see why problem solvers are a potentially extremely good question for interviewees, if they get it right.

    A well defined problem is a sort of benchmark for skills, in any profession. Problem solving is part of any job, and if you can show exceptional skills, particularly in a related business situation, any interviewer will recognize your abilities. You have the chance to impress, and because you have the choice of subject, you can do it on your own terms.

    Clarity of expression will also help you a lot in your interview. The interviewers will see that you do know how to communicate effectively. A good description of a situation is exactly what they need from employees. This is where you can really shine, so do it.

    How to define your role in solving the problem

    • Why was it your problem? Your role needs to be understood. You show where you come in.
    • What was your involvement? How, were you involved in the solution? If you've covered that in the previous point, good, but make sure you don't have to re-explain your involvement, or why it was you who came up with the solution.
    • How did you come up with the solution? What was your thinking? The interviewers need to see some logic, the reasoning involved.
    • What was your solution? This is critical. You didn't wave a magic wand, you came up with a method of solving the problem.
    • Who gave the OK to your solution? If you can show approval from management, fine. If you are a manager, you're showing initiative. What has to be shown here is that you were OK to put your idea into practice.
    • How did you implement the solution? Another critical point. Showing the practical basis of your solution is the remaining bit of explanation, the demonstration of your work. This is where you go from the idea of the solution to actual practical performance.

    Bear in mind, when talking to professionals, they'll be able to make a professional assessment of your work. They'll probably be able to cost it, and adapt that situation to their own business, before you finish speaking.

    That's good for you, as an interviewee, because you're proving beyond doubt your abilities. Practical problem solving is priceless in most businesses, and this question alone can really put you in the running for any job.

    Do not mention third parties, unless it's in a positive way, and you're giving credit where it's due. You can confuse the issue by bringing in someone the interviewers have never heard of, and whose role they don't understand.

    In some cases, management support for your solution is a very useful thing to point out. You're giving recognition to management's role in a very positive way. If you got support from management, make a point of giving appropriate credit, but remember, they're not hiring your manager, they're hiring you.

    You have to be the star of this story.

    How to define the result

    • What was the effect of your solution? Remember, you've defined the problem, at the start. As far as the interviewers know, those were the issues, and you have to address all of them.
    • Who benefited? In what way did they benefit? There are always several parties involved in a dispute. You had to say who was involved, now explain what the result meant to them.
    • Was your solution adopted as the way to handle these problems in future? This is a real selling point, if you can show your ideas and methods were seen as the way to handle these issues in future.
    • What sort of recognition did you get for your solution? If you can prove acknowledgement of your solution, it acts as a form of proven qualification