Depending upon your industry, you may be asked to answer problem-solving questions at some point during your interview with a hiring manager. These questions are common in IT, engineering, and other technical sectors where strong data analysis and problem-solving competencies are essential. However, once in a while, you’ll be asked to field a problem-solving interview question even if you aren’t in a strictly technical discipline.
Here’s how to prepare so that you’ll be able to “think on your feet” should a problem-solving question be asked.
Why Companies Ask Problem-Solving Questions
Problem-solving questions often fall into the category of interview questions without a right (or wrong) answer. Companies seek proactive, solutions-oriented employees for many of the jobs they are filling, and are more interested in the approach you’d take to solve a problem than they are in you providing the “correct” answer.
These types of questions are good examples of situational interview questions. Employers try to predict how you could solve a work problem for them in the future, based upon how you have either done so in the past or are currently doing so in the interview.
These questions may also be asked to assess your command of a key industry-specific process or technology. This holds true especially for interviews conducted by tech employers. If you are in a technical field, be ready to discuss how you would solve common project development, implementation problems, or obstacles.
Techniques for Answering Problem-Solving Interview Questions
How you should answer a problem-solving question will depend upon whether you are participating in a solo or a group interview.
Tips for Problem Solving in a Solo Interview
If you are asked to solve a problem in a solo interview, it’s an excellent strategy to demonstrate how you are able to follow the five primary steps in problem solving:
- Analyze the factors that caused the problem.
- Brainstorm possible solutions.
- Evaluate the cost and potential viability of these solutions.
- Implement a plan.
- Evaluate the effectiveness of your intervention.
Alternatively, you may be asked how you solved a problem in the past. The Situation, Task, Action, Result (STAR) interview response technique is a highly effective way to structure a detailed anecdote in response to a situational or a behavioral interview question. In this technique, you describe:
- A Situation (S) in which a problem arose
- The Task (T)—in this case, a problem that you had to solve
- The Action (A) or process you initiated to solve the problem
- The Results (R) of your problem-solving action
Tips for Problem Solving in a Group Interview
If you are in a situation where several candidates are being interviewed together, you may be asked to work together as a team to complete a problem-solving or work simulation. Afterwards, it is common for interviewers to ask the group to describe the process they took to address the problem.
The STAR interview response technique can work well in this situation.
During the problem-solving portion of the work simulation itself, remember to be a good listener as well as an innovative team collaborator.
If you have the opportunity to lead (without steamrolling) the group, recognize each person’s contributions as you later describe your collective problem-solving strategy to the interviewer.
Sample Problem-Solving Q&As
Here are a few examples of how to answer problem-solving questions. Use them as models in formulating your own responses as you practice for your interview.
How would you deal with an unanticipated understaffing situation?
This problem seems to occur every holiday season, so I’ve developed strategies to ensure that we have adequate staff coverage. The most important trick, I think, is to be proactive. I keep a current list of personnel who are willing to come in at a moment’s notice to fill others’ shifts—especially around major holidays (when people are likely to call in sick). Each time an employee agrees to cover someone else’s shift, I make a point to recognize them with a big “thank you” sign I write on our office whiteboard. This keeps morale high enough that I can generally find someone at a moment’s notice to come in. I also try to cross-train most of our staff so that they can cover for their colleagues when necessary. As a last resort, I’ll cover their shift myself if that’s required.
Why It Works: This candidate shows that they understand that it’s sometimes necessary to have multiple strategies in their “toolbox” to address unexpected problems in the workplace. The candidate describes how they are capable of examining options and coming up with a plan.
What would happen if you realized that you and your team wouldn’t be able to meet the deadline for your deliverables? What would you do?
This actually happened nine months ago, when our team was prepared to go live with a new product. A month before launch, we learned that one of our primary part’s shipment would be delayed. I immediately tried to contract with another supplier—although I sourced one, they couldn’t promise that they’d be able to deliver by our deadline. However, I was as transparent as possible throughout the situation, alerting management and our different department heads about the issue. Fortunately, the R&D engineers were then able to do a quick redesign that allowed us to use another part we could access quickly—and that turned out to be 20% cheaper than the original part! We met our deadline and saved costs at the same time.
Why It Works: This answer uses the STAR technique to describe how the candidate solved a work issue in the past. It’s especially effective because they also quantify one of the results of their actions with a percentage.
Answers to problem-solving questions can be more impactful if you quantify your contributions with numbers, dollar figures, or percentages.
How would you deal with a difficult subordinate who publicly questioned your authority?
First, I try to analyze the situation rather than the employee’s words to see what might have caused their discontent. I would then speak with them privately, giving them the chance to air their grievance and myself the opportunity to work with them to find a solution. Sometimes, all it takes to soothe an employee is to let them know that their opinions are respected. However, if the employee continued to spread negativity and diminish department morale, I would put them on official notice to expect a formal performance review at the end of two weeks, at which point we would discuss their future with our department.
Why It Works: With this response, the interviewee describes the logical problem-solving process they use when handling escalated issues with personnel, including how they make contingency plans if the initial interventions don’t work out.
Possible Follow-Up Questions
- Why are you the best person for this job? - Best Answers
- Tell me about something that’s not on your resume. - Best Answers
- How have you handled a challenge? - Best Answers
Describe Your Process Explain to your interviewer the steps you would take to solve a workplace problem.
Use Examples Provide detailed illustrations of how you have successfully solved problems in the past.
Practice Makes Perfect Brainstorm your own answers to questions about problem solving, then practice delivering these responses.