Conducting Project Management Interviews

We recently put together a top five list of project management interview questions after speaking with some of our clients. The questions below are generic open questions that can be asked regardless of the project management role being recruited for.


How do you turn around a failing project?


Project Managers that stand out in the crowd are ones that have been associated with project failure at some point in their careers either directly or indirectly. The ability to talk about the lessons learnt from such failures and to also articulate how to save a failing project should be something every organisation is interested in. The answer to the question will depend largely on what caused the failure to occur and should touch on both the technical and behavioural project management skills called into action to turn the project around. Expect answers which include mention of; situation analysis; success criteria; stakeholder and sponsor management; change management; re-establishing baselines; risk management; communications and relationship management; conflict management; negotiation and influence.


What would you do during your first 90 days in the job?


If enough information has been given before the interview about the position which gives the candidate a good orientation about the organisation; the project and the team, the answer can be specific to the role. If not, the answer can cover “what the project professional usually does” based on past experiences. The core answer would mention establishing and building key relationships and familiarisation with methodology, tools and processes


What do you think is the most important project document and why?


There is no right or wrong answer to this question and it is used to test both the candidate’s technical knowledge and competence in project management and help draw out exactly what their experiences have been. It gives an insight into how the project manager (or programme manager / project support person) thinks. Answers can range from the critical documentation like the project plan, risk register, business case or contract depending on the nature of the project being managed.


When was the last time you learnt something new about project management?


This question is asked to see how interested and enthusiastic the project professional is about their own profession and their own self-development. Is the candidate someone who just takes their certifications or are they someone who is committed to lifelong learning. There are always new thought leadership; research and developments in technical skills and behavioural competences that can be explored and a project professional who actively pursues self-development is certainly the kind of person an organisation wants within their business.


You can either deliver a critical business project on time or keep a senior stakeholder happy. What would you do?


A classic chicken or egg question – or is it? Tackling this question could produce a number of different scenarios. Will the candidate seek to validate the “either” in the question in order to test that they are really mutually exclusive? Should the answer be yes then further exploration will be required centred around associated penalties and potential impacts associated with each option. Key to this aspect is identifying the players affected which include the candidate as well as the business and the senior stakeholder. A great question to gain an insight into the candidate’s decision-making process.

Interviewing Project Managers

Latest Interview Research


Moving away from interview questions there is a fascinating recent research paper that gives much food for thought when interviewing. In Huffcut’s Seven Principles for Conducting Employment Interviews (2010) “by incorporating these principles, those who conduct employment interviews and/or rely on their results to make employment decisions should find an improvement in the calibre of those hired, and in the process, find greater satisfaction with the process.”

The seven principles are;

1.    Acknowledge the inherent difficulty of making judgments from an interview

It is a proven fact that the interview process is inherently difficult especially when you consider that an interviewee has had a lifetime to develop their skills, knowledge and experience and interviewers have just 45 minutes to assess them initially. Combine this with the fact that interviewees are reluctant to show their attributes in a typical state but rather in their best possible light. For interviewers a renewed focus on accuracy of their judgements is required to ensure they are doing the best interviews they can.

2.    Know as little about the candidate as possible.

It seems the more we know about the candidate before an interview the more harmful it can be. That might sound bizarre but consider these three events which occur. The first, we form general impressions when we first review a CV with some candidates being viewed more favourably for a number of reasons. Second, within the interview we then shift from an objective fact finding mode to an ‘impression-confirming’ mode. This essentially means the interviewer spends more time selling the organisation rather to those candidates they had a positive impression of than concentrating on follow-up questions. Third, this selective treatment has a strong influence on the scoring and assessment of candidates, often leading to offers.

The research also warns of ‘false positives’ and ‘false negatives’ for example, a false positive is a candidate who may look good in the CV but does not perform well in the job. Positive first impressions when reviewing a CV can often mean that interviewers do not delve deep enough into a candidate’s experiences in the interview. The false negative is someone who does not look as good on the CV but actually excels in their job. Unfortunately it is these candidates that are often at a disadvantage because a negative or less positive impression has already been formed before the interview. It is advised that impressions and judgements should strictly be formed during the interview and not beforehand, the question is, as an interviewer could you really do this?

3.    Avoid poor questions

Interview questions should be selected beforehand and be chosen purely to assess the candidate’s capability to perform the role. Classic questions such as ‘tell me about your strengths/ weaknesses?’ and ‘where do you see yourself in five years time?’ etc should be avoided. These types of questions are commonplace and ones which an interviewee will practice over and over. These canned responses tell us nothing and interviewers are encouraged to select questions which relate to KSAO – Knowledge, Skills, Abilities, and Other Characteristics.

4.    Utilize interview structure

As a basic, the structure stems from choosing appropriate questions beforehand and putting the same questions to each candidate who is interviewed. This consistency allows easier rating – comparing and contrasting of candidates afterwards. Research shows that developing a structure based on creating questions based on job analysis and then the scoring can ‘result in a greater association between the ratings interviewers make and the performance of the candidates that are hired’

5.    Avoid making judgements early in the interview

Forming ‘first impressions’ or judgements on candidates early on in the interview are flawed. This natural human tendency to form impressions early on in the interaction is based on the limited information made available. Interviewers should learn to delay judgements and think of themselves as ‘investigative agents’, exploring every ‘nook and cranny’ before forming their judgement.

6.    Watch for applicant performance effects

These are the tactics that candidates use in interviews to make themselves more favourably. Interviewers should be aware of; compliments to the interviewer and organisation; overstating accomplishments; and fabrications. Candidates who choose not to employ such tactics are more likely the right person for the job – but can you be sure that they are not overlooked? Learning to filter out the influence of ‘Impression management tactics’ in interviews is one of the latest areas of research being focused on

7.    Look for multiple sources of evidence

‘One piece of evidence is suggestive, while multiple pieces of evidence are confirmatory’. A concept called ‘triangulation’ has shown that three different sources should be used to help confirm the interviewer’s judgement. In an interview this could simply be asking for three different accounts which all demonstrate one particular skill area for example. Additional testing or asking interviewees to present on a topic are other areas to explore.



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