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Project management interview questions

Updated on August 19, 2013

Top three tips for project management interviews

How to succeed in winning a project management job

As head of a project department, I interviewed many project managers and read thousands of resumes. I've seen fantastic candidates, and I've also witnessed many terrible mistakes. Here, I will help you prepare by telling you about 8 of the most common interview questions and what the interviewer is looking for.

1. Tell me about your last project

This is a good starter question. It is the perfect opportunity for you to break the ice by giving the interviewer an insight into your project management experience.

What the interviewer is looking for

This is a basic question, so the interviewer is really just checking to see if you have the experience you claimed on your resume. They want to find out if you are a serious candidate and if you have undertaken a proper role as a project manager, rather than a role on the sidelines.

Tips for answering this question

  • Be prepared. It is easy to rehearse this answer with a short example of a recent project.
  • Talk as I, not we.
  • Talk with enthusiasm about the project, even if you really hated it.
  • Keep it short. This is an intro question, so the interviewer doesn't want a speech.
  • Summarize key points: the objectives of the project; who was involved; key challenges; your input; the end result
  • Be honest. If it wasn't a success, say so, but be prepared to explain why.

Traps to avoid

"Oh, well, um, I haven't actually managed a project yet, but I've been involved in loads and I've really helped manage them"

A big no-no. You've demonstrated that you lack the experience they are looking for. Anyone advertising for a project manager wants someone with the confidence to be able to run a new project on their own without support, unless the job advert specifically asks for a junior.

"So I wrote a risk register, and it had these columns: And an issue register. It had 27 issues. Issue number 1 was....Issue number 2 was.....Issue number 27 was.....And we had weekly progress meetings. They were 30 minutes long. Sometimes they were 40 minutes long. And we had a PowerPoint report for senior management. It had 12 slides. Slide 1 contained....slide 2 contained...."

I'm exaggerating of course. But I have had candidates give far too much detail about a single project. Remember, interviewers are only human, and they do get bored! You want to capture their attention with key points that really explains your project succinctly. A good tip is to think about how a news reader gives a summary bulletin of a news report. Don't bore your audience.


2. Tell me about a time when a project has failed

I often like to throw this one into the mix early on in an interview, especially if I've caught a glimpse of a disaster project in the intro question. However, often interviewers may ask about project success before they ask about project failure. Just be prepared if it does crop up early in an interview.

What the interviewer is looking for

Relax, this isn't a question aimed at trying to catch you out. Interviewers don't want you to fail an interview - they want you to succeed! The purpose of this question isn't to see what a failure you are but how you handle failure. Every project manager has a bad project in their history, and they are not expecting perfection.

Tips for answering this question

  • Summarize the failure, and suggest possible causes. Keep it brief. Your emphasis when answering this question should be on what you did about this failure. Talk about what you learned and what lessons you'd apply to a new project. Talk about how you might have done things differently.
  • Don't blame others. Interviewers want to see that you take ownership for problems.
  • Don't bad mouth others. Interviewers want to see integrity.

Traps to avoid

"The project failed because we didn't do any risk management on it"

Be honest in an interview, but don't be foolish. Never admit to something that is a fundamental basic task for a project manager. Failing to identify a critical risk during the planning stage is an acceptable mistake. Failing to risk manage altogether is not.

"Our management team were pretty clueless and so they didn't give us a big enough budget"

I cannot emphasis enough how off-putting it is to hear people being bad mouthed in an interview, or how often it happens. It is unprofessional. Perhaps you really were frustrated with the management team. Perhaps they were idiots. Keep the opinions to yourself. An interview is your moment to be diplomatic. The interviewer doesn't want to think they have a potential trouble-maker on their hands if they end up giving you the job.

3. Take me through the normal steps you carry out when planning a project

This is an opportunity for the interviewer to find out a bit more about your approach to project management and also to find out what you know. Alternative questions might including talking through how you control a project, or how you manage risk on a project.

What the interviewer is looking for

The interviewer is asking themselves whether you have a structured approach to managing projects. They are not so concerned about what the steps are, as long as you can justify why you do them. This is also a good opportunity to mention any formal methodologies you use, as the interviewer will be looking out for this.

Tips for answering this question

  • Answer confidently. Too many ums and ahs and it will appear that you might not actually use the approach as much as you claim
  • Be clear, precise and don't waffle. When asked to list steps your answer should be a fairly structured one
  • It's easy to go off on a tangent. If you do, try to get back on track by summarizing your steps briefly

Traps to avoid

"Steps? I plan using the normal PRINCE2 steps"

If you are going to mention a methodology, make sure you are extremely familiar with it, as they are likely to give you a follow up question. I've seen many interviewees claim knowledge of a methodology and then panic when asked to describe it in detail.

4. Do you use a formal methodology?

This question will depend on the job advert. Some jobs will specify a specific methodology and they will usually say if the methodology is a must-have requirement or a nice-to-have.

What the interviewer is looking for

This one is fairly straightforward. They just want to know if you understand the methodology you put down on your resume and if you have experience in using it on a project. This question is a perfect opportunity for you to demonstrate the experience that makes you the perfect candidate for them.

Tips for answering this question

  • Always cite your own examples of where you've used the methodology on projects. This will show you not only understand the theory, but you know how to apply it.
  • It is perfectly ok to say that you adjust the methodology to fit your project. Well, I say that but you might unfortunately get a project manager 'purist' interview you who doesn't approve of this. Only you can judge! However, experienced project managers tend to adjust methodologies to fit both their organisation, the size of the project and the customer. This demonstrates you understand the pros and cons of a methodology, and that you're overriding goal is to do what best suits your project.

Traps to avoid

"PRINCE2 dates back to the 1970s. It was original introduced by......"

You are not in an exam! Stick to key points and tie it in with your own experience.

"I use my own methodology"

Really? You are that smart that you've invented your own project management methodology? It is acceptable to say that you tailor a methodology to suit each situation. It's also acceptable to say you don't use one if that is the truth. However, inventing your own suggests you haven't given time to your career to develop your project management knowledge.

5. Describe a time when you persuaded someone around to your way of thinking

One of the key qualities companies look for in project managers are their influencing and persuasion skills. So a question related to this subject is likely to come up.

What the interviewer is looking for

The interviewer is trying to get a better picture of what you are like as a person and where your strengths and weaknesses lie. Influencing and persuasiveness are good measures as to how effective you are as a project manager because they are more sophisticated qualities that few people possess. Even if you are weak in this area, being able to demonstrate that you are aware of how important these skills are for a project manager is still important for the interviewer.

Tips for answering this question

  • Prepare in advance an answer to this, and think of a solid example of where you have changed someone's mind. It doesn't necessarily have to be related to a project; it can be anything you've done in your current role.
  • Talk about why the person was against your idea to begin with and describe them with respect. This shows that you understand contrasting viewpoints
  • There is a difference between winning someone over and bulldozing them with your opinion. Make sure your answer demonstrates the former.

Traps to avoid

"They were wrong and just didn't understand the situation"

Avoid any negativity. Its an easy mistake to make with this question and it comes across as disrespectful; a possible warning sign to the interviewer that you might be difficult to work with. Explain that whilst you respected your colleagues opinion, it was important to win them round to your way of thinking and explain why.

"We presented our case to the customer, and they saw the benefits in our proposal"

A classic mistake many people make in an interview is to refer to we rather than I. In this instance, the interviewer is interested in what your skills are as an individual, not what your team did.

8 Common Project Management Interview Questions

6. What project are you most proud of and why?

This is a perfect opportunity to shine. It is an invitation from the interviewer to talk about your strengths and your achievements, so make the most of it.

What the interviewer is looking for

The interviewer really wants to know what you can bring to their organisation. What are you strengths as a person and as a project manager? What are you likely to do well? This also gives the interviewer a clue as to what motivates you as a person and what sort of drive you have.

Tips for answering this question

  • Enthusiasm, enthusiasm, enthusiasm.
  • Mention accolades, awards and feedback from customers.
  • Use a recent example. You might have a wonderful project from 10 years ago that you are still really proud of, but an interviewer needs to see that you have developed as a person

Traps to avoid

"I'm proud of all of my projects as I always deliver success"

Many interviewers will be skeptical of this claim. Besides, you are not answering the question.

"The last project I managed was quite good I suppose. It seemed to go well and it was delivered on time"

Are you sure? You don't sound very sure. A little bit of confidence goes a long way in an interview.

7. How would you turn around a relationship with an unhappy customer?

The interviewer is likely to ask you a question related to how you would handle a major problem on a project and sometimes that can take the form of dealing with an unhappy customer. If the work is not customer-facing, a similar question might cover how you handle a major project issue or a major problem with the team.

What the interviewer is looking for

The interviewer wants to know that you can handle major problems on a project and that you can take ownership for them. This also gives the interviewer a chance to assess what your customer service skills are like.

Tips for answering this question

  • If you can, start off by describing a real example of this issue you've faced. If you don't have an example, think hypothetically instead. Why was the customer unhappy to begin with? Avoid emotive language and keep it objective.
  • Make sure you explain why the issue needs resolving and what the potential fall-out would be if you didn't handle it.
  • Explain that you do your best to see things from the customers angle. This is a major step to understanding an unhappy customer and helping resolve the situation.

Traps to avoid

"The customer was planning to cancel the contract / cancel the project, so I resolved this before having to inform management"

This might give the interviewer warning signs. Minor customer issues can be dealt with at a project level, however major ones should always be escalated, even if that's just to inform management of what is happening. You may worry the interviewer if you imply that something as serious as a contract termination wouldn't be reported up to management.

8. What motivates you on a project?

Different versions of this question might include: What do you enjoy most about project management? Why do you like being a project manager? Why did you choose project management?

What the interviewer is looking for

The interviewer wants to know if you are committed to the role. This is particularly important if project management is a sideways career move for you or a promotion. They want to know that you will enjoy the role and the challenges it brings and you are not just applying for the role because it convenient or its going to pay more money than your current position.

Tips for answering this question

  • Mention how important it is for you to develop in the role, and the value you place on learning and training
  • Be honest. If you are answering just to try and impress, this will come across in your body language, they way you speak, and your lack of enthusiasm.
  • If you are moving into project management from another role, explain what aspect of it excites you. Make sure you do your research though, or it could come across as na├»ve.

Traps to avoid

"Project management is an opportunity for me to progress to more senior levels of management"

This may be true, but it shouldn't be an answer in itself. You can certainly talk about your ambitions for career progression, but the interviewer wants to see that you are going to enjoy the job itself, and you are not just going to bide your time until something better comes along.

Top three tips for success

To finish off, I thought I would give you my top three tips. Occasionally I have interviewed such a fantastic, impressive candidate that I immediately return to the office to tell my colleagues "wow, they were great!". Here's some of the things they did which made them stand out:

- Bring in examples from projects that will really sell you as a candidate. This might include positive quotes and feedback from customers, examples of your documentation or metrics showing your success rates. Warning: avoid showing any kind of detail that would compromise security or confidentially. Leave out the names of organisations and keep it generic.

- Follow up the interview with a thank you email. In it, tell them how much you liked the look of the company and why, and tell them something new and impressive about you. Also, give them a details of your LinkedIn profile, about.me page, your portfolio and anything else you have at the ready.

- Dress to impress. Always wear a suit, even if the organisation typically favors causal wear.

Tell us about how you approach project management interviews

What do you think is the most important quality to demonstrate in a project management interview?

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Further interview preparation

Project Management Interview Questions Made Easy: For Successful Project Management Interviews
Project Management Interview Questions Made Easy: For Successful Project Management Interviews

Read up on further questions you may get asked and how to prepare for them

 

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      michaeldaviis1974@gmail.com 17 months ago

      Thank you for posting this wonderful post. It will really help many people who are acquiring for the job of project manager or some like that. The Project Management Professional (PMP)® is the most important industry-recognized certification for project managers.To get certified in PMP you should refer to books or you can learn them from online. After completing the PMP courses you can also take practice online refer to Such effective and more ideas can also be referred from http://goo.gl/rkEU5a

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      Suyash 3 years ago

      Thanks a lot, really appreciate your work.

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      Raghavan alias Saravanan M 3 years ago

      That is a very precise and a well narrated article. Thank you L Lambie and Hubpages.

    • LLambie profile image
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      Lauren 4 years ago from UK

      Thank you for your kind comments!

    • PegCole17 profile image

      Peg Cole 4 years ago from Dallas, Texas

      These are key essentials to a successful interview. You've really shared some of the pitfalls and answers I would not likely have known. Thank you so much for the great information here.