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Give me an example of something you’ve tried in your job that hasn’t worked. How did you learn from it?
The Real Question: Are you too afraid of failure to be innovative?
Top-line Tactic: Don’t mistake this question for one about setbacks or failure. It’s about your willingness to experiment.
Ostensibly, this question looks similar to other questions that ask candidates to own up to a failure, but if you think the interviewer is primarily interested in getting at your weaknesses here, you’ve most likely misunderstood his or her intent.
There is a distinction between drawn-out failure and fast, productive experimentation (which, by its nature, will often result in failure). Companies definitely don’t like it when projects to which they’ve devoted huge quantities of resources end up not paying off, but many do want you to try new things, even if that means those ideas sometimes fall flat. Grey New York, a unit of leading advertising agency WPP, even offers a “Heroic Failure” award to encourage risk taking and innovation.
Tor Myhren, the Worldwide Chief Creative Officer of the unit, explained to the Wall Street Journal that the unconventional award was a response to his sense that his people were growing more conservative. “I thought rewarding a little risk-taking was potentially an answer,” he told the paper. Myhren isn’t the only one trying this approach. SurePayroll offers a “Best New Mistake” award while gaming company Supercell celebrates each failure with champagne.
What’s the point of these examples? If your interviewer asks about things you “tried that didn’t work,” they’re probably probing to see if you understand that taking risks and occasionally failing are part of creativity—and whether you’re too much of a perfectionist to allow yourself to be innovative. The right answer, then, isn’t to play down your missteps, but to play up the fact that you try new things, rapidly assess if they’re working and move on if they aren’t. Show you’re willing to take risks and experiment to improve your work.
I think it’s really important to experiment and try new things at work. Of course they don’t always work out, but you can usually learn something valuable in the process. It’s just important to pilot new initiatives to limit the costs.
When I was running the customer service department at XYZ, for example, I spoke to several potential clients who said they were considering signing up for our services but were put off by the fact they had to commit to a year-long contract. I spoke to the team about it and we decided to offer a month-by-month payment plan. We also discussed how we would measure success and I kept careful track of the costs and revenue from the new option. We soon found out that customers who weren’t committed enough for an annual contract often only stuck around for a few months and the additional administrative costs of managing these short-term accounts were higher than the returns of the additional business. We ended the experiment after about six months, but the experience taught us to stick firmly to longer-term contracts, and that quality was better than quantity when it came to our customers.
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