Instantly Improve Hiring Results Using “Solve This Problem” Interview Questions (The most impactful interview question)

As a hiring guru, I guarantee that this interview question will instantly raise your hiring results. Yes, having a candidate answer a “solve this problem” interview question may be the most impactful interview question of all. This may seem too good to be true, but trust me on this one.

I’ve been helping managers at top corporations improve their hiring for over four decades. And, I have found that there is only one simple, “no-brainer” way to improve your hiring results instantly is to begin asking these “solve this problem” interview questions. 

What Is A “Solve This Problem” Interview Question?

The best way to assess a candidate’s ability to do your job is, of course, to physically put them into that job. Unfortunately, in almost all cases, this is simply not feasible for safety reasons.

However, there is a way to at least partially put your candidate into the job during the interview process. And that can happen if you begin using “solve this problem” interview questions.

These questions involve verbally giving the candidate a real problem that is already occurring in the open job. And then ask the candidate to verbally “walk us through the steps” that they would take to solve this problem.”

Your “solve this problem” interview questions can cover a variety of current problems, including improving output quality/speed, improving customer service, or first-month preparation steps for thoroughly learning about their new job, manager, and team.

Why Do” Solve This Problem” Questions Predict So Well?

There are numerous reasons why “solve this problem” questions yield so much valuable information. Which fortunately results in the making of significantly better hiring decisions. Those reasons include:

  • Standard interview questions don’t work – because the interview is the final determinant of which candidates will be considered for hiring. It is critical that you get the interview right. Begin by realizing that most traditional interviews have multiple flaws. And because of these many flaws, research by Google has revealed that standard interviews don’t predict any better than a coin flip. The largest interview problem area is the fact that 95% of traditional interview questions don’t reveal whether the candidate can actually do this specific job. In addition, well-prepared interviewees can answer most of these standard questions effectively, without any real knowledge about how to do this job. 
  • Putting the candidate in the job is the best predictor of on-the-job success – any assessment that puts the candidate “in or close to the job” will be the best predictor (the EEOC calls it job content validity). And since a great deal of a new hire’s success comes from their ability to solve problems. Having the candidate solve current problems will give you great predictive insight into their likelihood of successfully completing work tasks. 
  • Solving an existing problem is superior to solving a past problem at another company – all behavioral interview questions ask the candidate how they solved a similar problem in the past at another company. However, you need to know precisely how each candidate would solve your current problems in a way that fits your culture. So, in addition to any interview questions that you are fond of. You must also ask each candidate how they would solve at least one of the job’s current problems within the values and culture of your organization.
  • Only asking them to “walk you through the steps” saves interview time – asking a candidate to explain their complete solution to a problem would be extremely time-consuming. So, instead, I recommend only requesting a shortened version of their solution. Under this” solve this problem” process. You only ask the candidate to highlight each of the steps they would take and why each is important. Dramatically shortening the time that is required for them to provide their answer.
  • Assessing their answers will be easy – because each “solve this problem” question covers one of your team’s existing problems. Each interviewer will be familiar with the required steps to resolve this problem. And they will quickly know when an important step has been omitted. The process will be further improved when each interviewer is given a score sheet that lists the elements of a complete answer (note: sample scoring sheets can be found later in this article).

And as an added surprise, unlike most typical boring interview questions. 

You will be pleasantly surprised when you discover that your top candidates will actually be excited when they experience this type of question. And I guarantee that they will long remember that you were the only company that challenged them.


Example #1 – A “Solve This Problem” Interview Question Covering… Customer Service Rep Cooperation 

If you need more details on how to sculpt a “solve this problem” interview question. Below, you will find a sample script that covers the process for asking this type of interview question to customer service candidates.

The interviewer verbally explains our “solve this problem” interview question process to the candidate.

  1. An introduction by the head interviewer – because problem-solving is such a critical success factor in this job. We need to see how you will solve one of our existing problems. One that you will likely face if you become one of our customer service reps. Please solve the problem in the context of what you currently know about our corporate and team values and culture.
  2. The interviewer describes the problem – Mary, our newly hired customer service rep, has struggled to perform during her first month. Primarily because she hasn’t been getting much cooperation and support from our team’s other experienced customer service reps, we would like you to…
  • Please “walk us through the steps” covering how you would go about identifying the root causes of this “lack of coworker support” problem. 
  • Please list at least eight of your primary root cause identification steps in chronological order. When you cite each step, please briefly explain why it is necessary. 
  • Do you have any questions about the problem, our expectations for your answer, or this process?

A score sheet covering the elements of a complete root cause identification answer

Each of the interviewers would, in advance, be given a score sheet that would prompt them on what we expect in a complete “root cause identification answer.” The assessment factors for this customer service rep question cover five positive factors and three knockout factors:

Positive points should be awarded when:

  • Their solution includes at least eight primary steps
  • Their explanation of why each individual step is needed was crystal clear 
  • One of the initial steps included external benchmarking research
  • One step involved anticipating the fact that coworkers may not be forthcoming with information
  • One step covered the creation of suggested metrics for measuring inter-team cooperation 

Knockout factors include

  • Omitting at least once consulting with their manager 
  • Not pretesting their proposed solution 
  • Not sharing their information and final solution with others


Example #2 – An Interview Question Covering… Elements Of An Effective Sales Team Lead Development Plan

The head interviewer would first verbally explain our “solve this problem” interview question process to the candidate

  1. An introduction by the head interviewer – because problem-solving is such a critical success factor in this job. We need to see how you will solve an existing problem that you will likely face if you become a sales team lead. Please solve the provided problem in the context of what you currently know about our corporate and team values and culture.
  2. The interviewer describes the problem – Mohammed, we have found that our newly hired sales leads initially struggle to produce results. They haven’t developed a proactive plan for learning everything about their job, the team, and its customers during their first month. So we would like you to…
  • Please “walk us through the steps” (in chronological order) that you would take to determine the most important elements that must be in a successful proactive learning plan that would cover your first month on the job. And when you describe each step, please explain why each is necessary.
  • Do you have any questions about the problem, our expectations for your answer, or this process?


A score sheet covering the evaluation factors for identifying the content of a sales lead learning plan

Each of the interviewers would be given a score sheet that would prompt them on the appropriate steps for determining the key content elements of a successful learning plan. The assessment points include six positive factors and three knockout factors:

Positive points should be awarded when:

  • Their process for identifying the appropriate content for the learning plan included at least eight steps
  • Their explanation of why each identification step was necessary was crystal clear 
  • One of the initial steps for determining the appropriate content included external benchmarking research covering the best practices for new sales team leaders in our industry
  • One content identification step covered gathering data that revealed the critical success factors for new sales leaders 
  • One content identification step covered talking to the most and the least effective current and past sales leads within the company
  • One content intensification step involved researching how AI and technology could improve sales team effectiveness 

Knockout factors would include

  • Not asking to review the content of the initial learning plan that was used by the departing sales lead
  • Not researching the importance of technology on the success of sales leads 
  • Not including a step for sharing the finished learning plan with other internal sales leaders  


Additional Content Areas That Might Be Covered In “Solve This Problem” Questions

This final section contains a few additional problem areas that have been effectively covered with “solve this problem” questions.

  • Outline your plan for this job – if you need an employee that plans ahead. Assess whether this candidate has already put together a plan covering what actions they will take during their first six months on this job. A complete answer will cover their goals, who they’ll consult with (by title), what data they’ll analyze, how they’ll communicate with their team, and what success metrics they will use. 
  • Forecast the evolution of this job and industry – having employees who can anticipate future shifts is critical in a fast-changing world. So, ask the candidate to forecast at least five ways this open job will likely evolve over the next three years as a result of significant shifts in the business and technology environment. The second part of the question should also ask the candidate to forecast major changes in your industry. When you use this question, realize that having the candidate get the future changes 100% correct may be less important than verifying that the candidate constantly thinks about and plans for the future.
  • Identify the potential weaknesses in our process – if you need a new hire who is an expert at identifying potential weaknesses in existing processes. As part of their interview, hand the candidate a single-page diagram of one of your existing but flawed processes related to this open job. Give them a few minutes to examine the process. Then, ask them to identify the top three areas where they anticipate that serious problems are the most likely to occur to ensure accurate assessment. Prior to the interview, make up your own list of the actual pain points that you have previously identified in this process.
  • How will you determine what technology to purchase – in jobs where acquiring new technology will be essential. Ask the candidate to “walk you through the steps” of the process that they will use to discover, evaluate, and purchase new technology for their team. The best answers will include examining performance data, determining how often updates will be needed, and the economic viability of the vendor.

Final Thoughts

If you search the Internet for “my favorite interview questions,” you will literally come up with hundreds of them. Unfortunately, I have found that 99% of these supposed gems are actually quite worthless.

In my research, the only “magic interview question” that I have found to actually work is one that I have recommended and used for years. And that is the “walk me through the steps on how you would solve our problem” interview question.

It works so well because it assesses the candidate’s ability to solve a real current problem in the context of your own company’s culture. Hiring managers also find this approach to be extremely intuitive and easy to implement.

Incidentally, if you want to learn more about the most powerful nontraditional interview questions, you can find my popular companion Harvard Business Review article on that subject here

Author’s Note

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About Dr John Sullivan

Dr John Sullivan is an internationally known HR thought-leader from the Silicon Valley who specializes in providing bold and high business impact; strategic Talent Management solutions to large corporations.

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