One of the most common competency-based questions for any role requiring some project management experience is “Describe an important project you’ve worked on.” There are a few reasons why interviewers ask this question. They want to see how well you can manage a project or a situation, what your approach to dealing with challenges is, and how your skills would help you to successfully lead a project. They also want to know what your work ethic is like, and gain insight into how you handle stress. So how are you going to answer this question?
First, you need to prepare an answer in advance. It’s very hard to give a well thought-out, five-star answer if you haven’t done prep before your interview. To get started with prepping a response to this interview question, write out a list of all the important projects you’ve worked on in your career. Then, note what the goal was of each project, and what part you played in bringing each project across the finish line. Then, note the outcomes of all the projects.
The next step is to hone in on the project (or projects) you’ll discuss in an interview situation. Use the STAR method (Situation, Task, Action, Result) to create a concise (yet thorough) answer. Make sure your answer demonstrates your abilities with setting priorities, making decisions, hitting deadlines, and delegating tasks (if you’ve been in a management role). Below are some points to consider when preparing your answer.
Choose the Right Example
Select a project you’ve worked on recently, and not one from several years ago. One of my coaching clients who was applying for a managing director role told me about an impressive achievement during a mock interview. When I asked him when the achievement took place, he said 10 years ago (!). It’s important that you focus on something more recent—you don’t want to give the impression that the last significant achievement in your career took place eons ago.
Also, make sure you pick a project that was actually successful (unless you want to talk about an unsuccessful project that you turned around and made a success). You don’t want to rattle off a bad example in an interview! I’ve heard many stories of candidates realizing halfway through their answer that they’ve chosen a bad example, and that the outcome they worked towards in the interview situation was actually a disastrous one.
Ideally, pick an example that’s most relevant to the responsibilities of the job you’re applying for.
It’s not enough to mention a few responsibilities when discussing the important project or achievement. The interviewer wants to know not just what you’ve done, but how you led, or how you made decisions. When you talk about the project, talk about your process. Talk through your process. Note how you broke down responsibilities into bite-size chunks in order to get the project across the finish line. If you were managing a group project, note how you delegated responsibilities to your team members—how you decided who did what, and by what time.
Explain Your Role Clearly and Talk Tangible Outcomes
A common mistake that candidates make is saying “we” all the time when answering a question about an important project. It is okay to say “we” if you’ve managed a team, but make sure that you make your contribution to the project clear. What role did you play in its success? That’s what you need to emphasize.
Also, make sure you mention the tangible result of the project. If the work you did saved the company time or money, or took it to a new level in regards to its standing amongst competitors, well . . . go ahead and quantify your answer as much as possible! And if you earned raves from a client, be sure to note their specific feedback. It’s also a good idea to mention what you learned from the project—both from the success and its challenges.
Mistakes You Should Avoid
It can be easy to begin rambling about an important project or achievement from a current or previous position when in an interview situation. Stay clear and concise by avoiding these mistakes and pitfalls. Do not go into an interview situation without an answer to this question firmly planted in your head. As noted at the beginning of the article, you should write out a list of all the important projects you’ve worked on in your career, and detail how you contributed to their successful completions. Choose a past project that aligns with the job/industry you’re interviewing for.
Share your success, but avoid coming off as arrogant when you do so. Don’t focus on the contribution of others—the answer you provide should primarily be about you. Also, don’t focus on negatives, or talk about how you disliked the important project (if that is indeed the case).
Again, avoid talking about an unsuccessful project (unless—as previously mentioned—you want to talk about how you turned an unsuccessful project into a successful one).
“I have worked on many important projects throughout my career. What’s really crucial for me when starting one is to get very clear on the goals right at the start and then create a plan with milestones. I also like dealing with the most difficult parts of the projects early on—that way in case there are any significant issues, I’ll still have a nice amount of time to complete before the deadline. I also typically break down large tasks into smaller chunks, so that it is easier to know where to start. Detailed planning is very important to ensure an important project goes smoothly. For example, last year I was in charge of . . . .”
From here, start explaining the project, first in terms of its purpose and objective, scope, complexity [e.g. working with new technology, number of resources, budget, and timeline] and the key challenge you needed to overcome. Show them that you can see not only the big picture but also all the little things that need to happen on a daily basis in order to get the project done.
Here’s another example of how to answer the question:
“In order to get project “X” completed in my previous job, I found out who the key stakeholders were and got their input on the project’s different parts. Then, I outlined the major milestones that would be involved in completing the project, and worked backwards to break down the work that would need to be done at each stage.
I created a list of all possible risks that might stop us from reaching those milestones, and I then added some extra time to the schedule in case anything unexpected came up. I also made sure that my role and responsibilities in the project were as clear as possible so I knew exactly what I had to do. The project was completed on time, but looking back, I realize there were some problems that could have been avoided. For example, I would have changed “Z” in order to avoid some of the minor scheduling problems we ran into. Having said that, it’s always easier to see what the learnings are after a project has been completed, and I now know what I’d do differently the next time.”
Remember your end goal with this question: to put yourself in the best possible light when explain your project management approach, and lessons learned from past important projects. Make sure you shine in the end, but don’t come off as an arrogant bragger. Don’t take all the credit if you worked on a collaborative project. Quantify the end results, if possible, and always make sure you share the outcome of the project’s completion. Good luck!
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