Let’s face it: job interviews are uncomfortable at the best of times – you’re faced with a potential manager who is watching and judging your every move trying to determine whether you’d be a good fit for the company. And before even getting to the nitty-gritty of the questioning stage, they’ve already scrutinised how you walk, how you talk, how you dress and how you wear your hair.
If that wasn’t bad enough, competency-based interview questions are thrown your way, forcing you to sweat under the collar while you spurt out captivating answers that will hopefully bag you the job. One question that really makes you think on your feet, though, is the dreaded ‘Give me an example of when you had to think outside the box’.
Instead of squirming in your seat and thinking of a bogus story you can recite, follow this guide to adequately prepare for this question and perfect your answer!
Watch some example scenarios below:
Why hiring managers ask this question
Hiring managers pose this question to find out about your past experiences and to see if you can think on your feet and solve problems. They want to hear if you have pitching skills to sell yourself to them and if you’re innovative enough to think of alternative solutions to a problem.
How to prepare a response
Showcase your lateral thinking by describing a time where you wowed your manager and prevented a detrimental problem from happening. Whether it’s a tough client situation, an unexpected turn of events in a team project or something personal, it’s important to walk the interviewer through the timeline of events.
To help you give a clear and concise answer, follow the tips below.
Step 1: Think about your greatest achievements
To help you identify a scenario that can be used in your answers, think about your greatest achievements. Usually, a great result is reached by overcoming a challenge in the workplace, making an ideal answer for this commonly asked interview question.
Once you’ve listed all your achievements, choose one that’s the most relatable to the job that you’re applying for. Although saving a cat from a tree by attaching a rope from your bedroom window is heroic and – might I add – dangerous, it doesn’t actually relate to the job role. In fact, the interviewer might even question your logic for even mentioning it and for putting your life at risk instead of calling an arborist.
Step 2: Make sure it’s positive
Most real-life problems call for a creative solution but make sure the overall outlook of the scenario is positive. For example, if your story begins with you doing something terribly wrong – even if you show that you rectified it in the end – you could be seen in a bad light because you shouldn’t have made such a careless mistake in the first place.
Better examples could involve tough customer service situations, technical issues or unsuspecting challenges in a project. These can help you land the job by putting your best foot forward and showcasing yourself in a positive light.
Step 3: Use the STAR method
By following the STAR approach, you can highlight your skills and abilities through your answer. You can begin by describing the context of the example (the Situation), then explain what your initial role and goal was while also listing the problem that you faced (the Task), followed by the Actions that you took to overcome the problem and concluding with the outcome based on the steps that you took (the Result).
This will ensure that you give a clear and concise example of what happened and how you used your initiative to think outside the box and solve a problem in the workplace.
Step 4: Be interesting
Nerves often get the best of us, sucking all traces of personality and leaving us to sound robotic and rehearsed when delivering our answers. While a certain level of nerves is unavoidable, you do need to try and keep a sense of who you are when answering tough interview questions such as this one.
Don’t forget that the hiring manager wants to see if you will be a great culture fit, too, meaning that your answers need to be both interesting and insightful.
Step 5: Practice, practice and practice
Although your answers need to sound natural, it’s also essential to prepare and practise your answers beforehand. It not only makes you feel more prepared but also more confident as Cathy Lovell, a student service manager for the Open University, confirmed in an interview with the Guardian, saying that when you walk into an interview having prepared answers to most questions, you’ll feel less pressured and more confident as you know your stuff.
To help you prepare your own concise answer, we’ve listed a couple of prime examples below that can be used as a guide.
I was working on an important presentation the night before I was due to deliver it to an audience of 100 when my laptop blacked out and my entire document was deleted. I first tried to recover the document with a recovery program but to no avail! I then spent the next six hours rewriting as much as I could remember and combined it with some of my previous presentations that I had stored on my work computer. Luckily, it all came together in the end, and my presentation was well-delivered.
In my previous role, we were preparing to send out important press invites when the envelopes arrived in the wrong size! To ensure they were sent on time, I had to improvise. I found old invites that hadn’t been sent, opened them carefully and took out the existing invites, and I was strapped for time. Luckily, my recycling process paid off, and they looked as good as new!
In my previous position, I was responsible for identifying new business opportunities and maintaining relationships with existing clients. One of these clients had asked about an additional service that we didn’t provide at the time. I then asked them about how they used our product and how this service would benefit them so I could get a better understanding of their request. After that, I contacted the development team, and two months later we had rolled out the service the client had requested.
My current role involves managing two in-house content writers for our blog. When they both were out of the office due to illness and a family emergency, respectively, we were left hanging with an article on a trending topic that we wanted to get out that day. Instead of delaying its production and publication by a day, I decided to set up an account on Fiverr and commission the piece from a freelance writer. By the end of the day, the article was live on our blog — and because it was published at the right time, it became our most-viewed article of the year.
In my previous position as a personal assistant to the company CEO, I was responsible for making her travel arrangements. On one occasion, she arrived at the airport when her flight to LA was delayed by eight hours. She had an important meeting with one of our VIP clients, but they couldn’t rearrange the meeting. So, I arranged to have a private car pick her up and drive her to LA, and two hours later she was giving her presentation to the client.
Mistakes to avoid
When you’re attempting to answer this tricky question, make sure you avoid these common pitfalls.
1. Talking about something irrelevant
When answering this question, you need to provide an example that showcases a transferable or vital skill which is relevant to the job that you’re applying for. If you don’t have a suitable example from your working experience or internship, think back to your studies and how you used your initiative to think outside the box when you were faced with an obstacle.
2. Talking too much
When explaining a story, it’s easy to go off on a tangent and list every single detail, but you’ll only confuse your listener and make them switch off (which isn’t how you want to be remembered). To help you stay on track, follow the STAR approach that we mentioned above.
3. Being unsure of your accomplishments
There’s nothing worse than umm-ing and ahh-ing while you try to scrabble a half-decent answer together. You can ruin all the hard work you put into your interview by being unsure of your accomplishments.
To ensure you don’t offer the silent treatment, think of a few accomplishments beforehand, and prepare sample answers that can be used during your interview.
When asked this competency-based interview question, hiring managers are looking to see if you have creativity, innovation, critical thinking, initiative and persistence. So, when you are forming your answer to the notorious 'thinking outside the box' question, you need to make sure you have these skills in the back of your mind.
Have you ever been asked this question in an interview? How did you answer? Let us know in the comments section below.
This article is an updated version of an earlier article originally published on 15 July 2014.