Question forms part of
Other interview questions that are similar
How do you handle setbacks?
Tell me about a time you worked on a project that was not on track
What do you do when you veer off the critical path?
What the interviewer is looking for by asking this question
Projects go off course all the time. Often times it is no-one’s fault, it is just a matter of life – and other times it is someone’s fault and somebody screwed up.
Either way if you are working as a Project Manager and the project goes off the rails it is your job to get it back on course, and it is you who is going to take the brunt of the blame if you can’t. Such is the life of a Project Manager, all of the responsibility of project success or failure fall on your head.
As this is the PM’s responsibility the interviewer wants to see how you would handle a situation like this. When asking this question the interviewer is looking to see if you are capable of keeping a cool head in a crisis, can you calmly identify the blockers, remove them and get the project back on its feet?
The best approach to answering this question
The best approach to this question will be a blend of theory and experience. There are certain steps that you should always take when a project is off course; such as assessing the situation, identifying the root cause, introducing remedies and monitoring the situation (all while communicating the project status to the stakeholders).
What will turn a good answer into a great answer though is being able to incorporate an example into your response. Obviously a real life example from your experience would be best but if you struggle to come up with one walk through a hypothetical answer with the interviewer.
Let’s check out how you can incorporate this technique for this question:
B – Belief – Share your thoughts / feelings on the subject. Quite simply just walk the interviewer through the theory of what you would do (identify the issues, re-evaluate project viability, resolve issues, etc.)
S – Situation – Segue from the ‘theory of projects’ direct into a personal example. Set the scene quickly. What was the project and what was the issue?
T – Task – What was your role in the project and how were you involved in it ‘going off the rails’. Obviously if you are applying for a PM role you will want to give an example where you were leading the project, but you also don’t want the issue to be something that you should have been aware of (COVID is a good external factor that everyone can relate to). A good tip would be to talk about how you were brought into the project because the project was going off the rails.
A – Activity – What did you do and why? This should be the bulk of your answer. Detail the steps you took and explain the reasoning behind why you took them.
R – Results – How did it all turn out? You can go one of two ways with this. Either the project was a success and everyone went home happy all thanks to you. Or you can talk about how the project could no longer be justified given the new state of play. The latter option is a bit trickier to explain in an interview setting but if you pull it off it shows the interviewer you are experienced and able to make the rational choices.
How NOT to answer this question
Don’t throw anyone under the bus. The project has gone off the rails, sure, and most of the time you could probably pinpoint the blame on one or two individuals. But at the end of the day, as the Project Manager the responsibility falls to you. If the project is off the rails because someone didn’t do their job properly the next question from the interviewer is going to be why you did not highlight that issue as a risk and have a mitigation or remediation plan in place.
Don’t avoid the question. Make sure you have some kind of response to the question. I have seen people avoid the question by talking about how it is impossible to say what you would do as you do not know the situation. Those type of responses will not endear you to an interviewer.
Suppose the project has gone off the rails. What steps would you take to get it back on track? – Example answer
“The first step I would take is to confirm if the project is still viable in its current state. I would do this by re-confirming the business justification and seeing if the same assumptions still hold true now. Assuming the project is still viable I would investigate the issues with the team and prioritise remediation or mitigation of each item, re-scoping or re-defining the project plan as need be. Once the new plan was ready I would re-issue to the project stakeholders for review and approval. Later on I would lead an investigation as to why these issues were not catalogued in the RAID log already, but that investigation would be held once the project was back on track.
I actually have some recent experience with a wayward project. COVID-19 had caused a number of our internal projects to stall out. I was brought onto a project when the previous PM had left the business. The aim of the project was to offshore one of our business processes. The project had stalled after our offshore office had been closed due to a lockdown.
The first thing I did was to re-confirm the business justification. In doing so I found that the project was no longer viable. The main aim of the project was to offshore a particular process (and therefore save on the labour costs), however the process itself was to be discontinued in around 18 months time anyway in favour of a new automated process. Given this, and the delays realised by COVID, the assumed cost savings were no longer accurate and the revised cost savings were negligible. I presented my findings to the Change Committee and requested I be allowed to take the necessary steps to close the project.“