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Experience vs. Performance – how to interview for ‘problem solving’

“Problem Solving”

It’s a common requirement for a variety of jobs. From the challenges of making a sale to the intricacies of designing, building, and marketing products, to the conundrum of operations and employee challenges – problem solving skills are useful in every crevice of many organizations. But how can you effectively test someone’s abilities to solve the specific problems of your job and organization?

There are two basic approaches to interviewing for problem solving abilities – both with pros and cons: EXPERIENCE and PERFORMANCE.

“Tell me about a time when…”: demonstrate through EXPERIENCE

The “tell me about a time when…” experience question measures if a candidate can solve problems by asking them how they’ve solved the same or similar problems before. The logic of these questions is if you’ve done it before, you can do it for us. After all, past performance is a great predictor of future performance, right?

Example questions:

  • “Tell me about a time when you had to handle a situation where a customer was very angry but you couldn’t do as the customer demanded. What was the issue, why was the customer angry, and what did you do to resolve the issue?”

  • “Tell me about a time when your stakeholders for one of your projects would not agree on next steps. What was the disagreement about and how did you resolve the issue to move the project forward?”

  • “Tell me about a time when you handled an employee issue that had potential legal implications for the organization. What was the issue and how did you resolve it? What steps did you take to minimize the liability for the organization?”

Bonus tip: when possible, ask questions that allow candidates to draw from any experience to answer them while providing value. For example, not specifying what type of project they are working on where the stakeholders had a disagreement or not specifying the industry and interaction for a customer complaint. This will give candidates an opportunity to highlight transferable experience and skills rather than be pressed to find an exact matching scenario.

Pros: Experience questions are great for understanding how the candidate has handled similar challenges in different environments. These questions give insights to what problems the candidate has had to deal with in the past, how they solved them, and how they behaved under the various pressures and inputs while solving those problems.

Cons: Experience questions are limited to just those one or two experiences the candidate chose to share. This could be a great example of their abilities, or it could be the two out of hundreds that actually worked. It also only shows their abilities at play in those specific scenarios at those specific organizations which may or may not be transferable. Can they navigate a challenge that’s a variation or completely different than the ones they described or if the variables change, do they get stumped? Or the story could be a great reflection of someone else’s abilities. The candidate could have simply been in the room or heard second hand about the challenge and solution rather than showcasing their own ability.

“How would you handle…”: demonstrate through PERFORMANCE

The “how would you handle…” performance questions allow candidates to show you how they would solve a problem on the spot. The logic of these questions is to let the candidates show you how well they can solve problems, thus demonstrating the ability.

Example questions:

  • “How would you handle the following situation: a customer calls and starts yelling that they never received the package that was due to arrive the previous night. The records show that the package was delivered as expected and there is a picture showing the delivery at the door of the address on file. The customer continues to yell, claiming they were home all night and there was never any package and demands a full refund. There is also a note on the customer record that they have received four refunds for undelivered items in the last three months. What do you do?”

  • “How would you handle the following situation: You are running the night shift for our largest facility. We are racing to meet a production deadline which requires us to run at full capacity. It’s the night after the super bowl and 20% of the workforce suddenly calls out sick. We need at least 90% of the workforce onsite to run at capacity. What do you do?”

Bonus tip: for scenarios, be deliberate with the details – giving enough setup and background for candidates to successfully answer the question without guessing or making assumptions. To test for flexibility to solve a variety of challenges, change the details and see how they solve the new problem “okay, what if the customer said…”. To ensure there is no hidden assumptions, also have the candidates walk through why they came to the conclusion they did.

Pros: Performance questions require candidates to solve the problems on the spot, therefore there is no doubt that it is their own abilities behind the solution. It exposes how they think, how they approach different problems, and if they are flexible to varying scenarios.

Cons: Performance questions require ‘fast thinking’ or solving in the moment. However, some of us thrive when given a little time to think through challenges rather than answering on the spot. Unless the job requires fast thinking (like medical triage or responding to angry customers on the phone), having time is perfectly reasonable. These questions also lack the pressures and emotional influences of a real scenario. No one is screaming, no manager or executive is panicking, no patient is dying. How we act under pressure is far different than when in a calm environment. Therefore, these questions don’t expose how the candidate will act in the moment, just how they solve a problem.

The answer – A little of ‘A’ and a little of ‘B’

So, if neither is a perfect solution, what do you do?

Both, of course.

Combine experience and performance questions to get the best of both worlds. Use EXPERIENCE questions to evaluate how your candidates behaved under realistic pressures of the situations and how they interacted with others in the team, the decision makers and stakeholders, and the customers (if relevant). Use the

PERFORMANCE questions to test the breadth of their problem-solving abilities, changing details and scenarios to test flexibility, creativity, and reasoning.

Bonus tip: Identify the answers before asking the question. Ensure your problem-solving questions are equitable across all your candidates by identifying what a good vs. bad answer is and how it will be rated before talking to candidates. This avoids biases from impacting the evaluation such as the ‘mirror’ effect: “I’m amazing, and that’s how I would answer the question, therefore you must be amazing”.

Bonus tip. If part of the problem-solving skills required is investigation (knowing what to ask to get to the right answers), use a performance question with drip content. Start by setting the expectation that the candidate can ask any questions. Then give a scenario that deliberately doesn’t have enough information. If the candidate starts solving without asking – it shows that they are not oriented toward investigation. Drip out a piece of content that makes their answer wrong. “That’s great, but this customer is in China”. And see what they do – do they ask questions or just change their answer. Do this two or three more times to see if they get the hint to ask questions. If they never ask questions, they will likely not do so in the job either. If they catch on, then they can likely be trained to ask questions. If they ask first, they are oriented toward investigation.

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