48

TLDR: Projects have failed due to lack of dedicated resources (money, employees) and not, as far as I believe, to mismanagement on my part. How can I address this to future employers without bad-mouthing my current employer?

More often than not my boss (owner of the company) objectively bites off more than we can chew in a "sell now, make the deal, and worry about the work later" attitude. While discussions between he and I have highlighted our inability to perform the project work, inability to hire out the work, and inability to purchase materials for the work, it seems like all of that falls on deaf ears, and I am left to manage (in as much as I can) multiple projects where we simply cannot buy, hire, or make the resources to complete the work.

After reading interview questions about "describe a time when a project you have lead has failed", I got to thinking about the project failure rate at my current company. More often than not money "set aside" for projects is dedicated to other facets of the company, but communication about this does not ever reach me until after the fact and we are under the gun for some new sale or project the boss has made or come up with.

But that aside, how can I answer questions related to project failure (completed over budget and over schedule, lots of rework, etc.) honestly when, objectively, our company bites off more than it can chew and attempts to rectify the situation on my end (solutions, etc.) are met with non-response or "we'll figure out a way"?

(And please, honestly, let me know if I've gotten this all wrong-- my experience managing projects doesn't go that far back, so I may lack the wisdom or expertise to deal with this situation (it may be common, for all I know!)).

122

After reading interview questions about "describe a time when a project you have lead has failed"

As an interviewer, if I asked this question I would be most interested in your role and how you learned from the experience. I would have no problem with you professionally pointing out that the project was doomed due to insufficient resources; companies not staffing correctly isn't nearly as rare as it should be.

However, that wouldn't answer the question completely in my mind. I'd want to hear about the strategies you took to mitigate the damage of understaffing, adjust expectations, adequately communicate the risks, etc. If all you could tell me is that someone else screwed up, then it wouldn't be an answer that set you apart as a candidate.

This doesn't mean you have to have done all of those mitigating strategies, although if you have that's even better. I would be happy to hear about what you've learned since and how you'd handle it better if placed in a similar situation again as well as what you did at the time to address the issue. Obviously, there is a fatal level of understaffing / overpromising, but the fact that your boss did those things doesn't tell me much about you as a candidate, and if you want to stand out in an interview you want your answers to inform the interviewer about yourself in positive ways.

  • 3
    I'd also be looking out for you bitching overtly about the organisation in which the failure took place. You touched on that with the statement about blame, but I think this perhaps deserves a little more prominence. You don't want an employee who's going to rant about your failings wherever they go next. – Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 11 at 14:47
  • I agree with @LightnessRacesinOrbit, I would worry that you are not commercially aware / something of a perfectionist. Ideally the answer would be related to something you personally had done wrong and you would then explain what you had learned from it. – Alan Dev Jan 11 at 18:41
  • @LightnessRacesinOrbit I think the answer makes it clear how you ought to spend time answering this question. If your main focus is blaming others, then you aren't being professional and you aren't standing out in any positive way. – dbeer Jan 11 at 19:33
  • @dbeer: Yep indeed the answer does allude to it. As I said it could perhaps be slightly more prominent but I have no actual problem with this answer as-is. – Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 12 at 16:49
  • Thank you very much for your time and your input @dbeer. I see now that I was not thinking as to the reason behind the question, and you helped me see that! – Metalgearmaycry Jan 14 at 19:07
23

The purpose of the "describe a time when you failed" is to see how you react to failure, and what you learned from it.

The way to not badmouth your previous employer is to take ownership.

Well, I did have this one project where we had a tight deadline and insufficient resources. The project ended up failing for those reasons. The one thing I took from that above all else is to raise concerns as soon as I have them. I've made a practice of this ever since and have managed to head off a few disasters that way.

See what I did there? I put the emphasis on what was learned, not on the situation or how it got to that point.

  • I agree 100%. The important point is that "lack of resources" is a symptom, not a root cause. WHY were there not enough resources? Were they planned for? Did the project not align with strategic goals, and therefore got no attention? Show that you learned something, and have changed behavior. "Lack of resources" sounds pretty weak on it's own. – dwizum Jan 10 at 20:14
  • 5
    @dwizum I would think that the lack of resources was what the job candidate had to deal with. Why the resources were insufficient doesn't seem nearly as relevant to the interview. – David Thornley Jan 10 at 21:46
  • 2
    @DavidThornley as an interviewer, I wouldn't be concerned about the whys or wherefores either, just the "lessons learned" part. – Retired Codger Jan 10 at 21:50
  • Thing is, you can't really "learn lessons" or impact a surface symptom like "lack of resources" unless you understand why there's a lack of resources. – dwizum Jan 11 at 13:59
  • @dwizum sure you can: "Hey boss, there's no way we can rewrite our entire code base in one week with 1 contractor, and the admin who's studying coding at night." – Retired Codger Jan 11 at 14:04
2

It is not necessarily badmouthing your ex-employer to mention a failed project due to lack of resources. To convey that you do not have to spin it as the company biting more than it can chew. Resources are misallocated all the time, over-optimism about prospects happen all the time as well.

You can instead use it as an opportunity to talk about the measures you took to see if you could finish a project with the limited resources you were provided, how you decided on cost cutting strategies, what you learned you could do to avoid failure in a similar situation again etc.

1

One reason that "tell me about a project you were on that failed" is a common question is that everyone has been on a project that failed. Nobody in the entire world has ever succeeded in every single thing they've done.

That being the case - they're not really asking because they want to know why the project you choose to talk about failed. They don't want to repeat that project, they want to know if they should hire you. Even if you are able to completely honestly attribute the project failure to insufficient resources, intransigent upper management, etc., that doesn't tell the interviewer anything at all about you.

Interview questions are intended to determine how you will perform if you get the job: they are future-focused. But, of course, one of the best ways to predict someone's future success is to assess their performance in the past - if they have consistently succeeded in the past, they are likely to continue succeeding in future, all else being equal; which is why interview questions cover past experience.

When asked to talk about a past failure, the interviewer is specifically asking about something other than past success. It might be mildly interesting to be able to say "my work on that project succeeded, but the project failed anyway", and that may even be true, but it's not what they're asking about. They want you to demonstrate what you learned from the project failure.

So what did you learn from the failed projects? It sounds like the company is still going, so the failures don't (yet?) seem to have been fatal, so the projects must have some result. Have you learned how to deliver partial solutions when you don't have the resources for a complete solution? Have you learned how to mitigate customer complaints after a project failure? Have you learned how to keep a team happy, focused, and productive as best they can be, when they don't have the resources they really need? If nothing else, have you learned how to identify when a situation is not going to improve and it's time to leave - which might be why you're looking for a job now?

The question isn't really about the project, or the reasons it failed. It's about you. It's about what experience you have. Use an example of past failure to show that you learned from it, and would be able to avoid or mitigate similar failures in future.

0

Talk about the issues and challenges you faced during a project. Don't point fingers at colleagues or badmouth your company. Simply explain why the process didn't go smoothly and identify what caused this.

Go on to explain how you learnt from this experience and applied that knowledge to the next project which in turn ran smoothly. This way you end the question on a positive note,

  • 1
    I think the OP's problem is that the next project did not run smoothly. The next time round he told the boss "we can't do this", and the boss said "we'll figure it out when the time comes". – Martin Bonner Jan 11 at 10:20

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.