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October 27, 2016
As selection panels look for ways to differentiate between highly qualified AEC teams during interviews, impromptu scenarios have become one of the “make or break” deciding factors. That’s because while teams can prepare and practice content for their presentation, only a team’s spontaneous response to solving a problem gives the panel an idea of how the team will react to the unexpected challenges that occur on every project.
According to Port of Seattle’s Ralph H. Graves, senior director of capital development: “Scenarios challenge the proposers, individually and collectively, to depart from their prepared presentation and think on their feet. It gives us a chance to observe the interaction of personalities and skills on the team. An open-ended scenario is a great opportunity for a team to really distinguish themselves and make our selection choice an easier one.”
Getting to your answer
Many teams spend precious preparation time reviewing past interviews with the client and trying to “guess” the unknown scenario. What teams don’t often realize is that the solution to the scenario is only a small part of what panels are looking for.
Panels want to see how the team functions under pressure, whether they clarify key pieces of information before they decide and act, whether they gloss over emergency or safety issues, and whether the team can turn the expertise claimed in the formal presentation into workable ideas.
Kyle Richardson, OAC Services’ senior program manager, says preparation for scenarios is key: “Figuring out the process for how you’re going to handle that curveball in advance is critical. Who is the go-to on the team? Can we figure out why the client is asking this particular question? How does the team work together to answer the question completely? Do we know what we don’t know?”
Here are five key strategies that will help you master impromptu scenarios for AEC interviews:
1. Stop guessing. You can’t know what the surprise challenge will be, but you can decide how you will organize, develop and deliver an answer. The project manager is key here he or she must be the driving force and find a way to include everyone who is on the team. What about that decision-making process you described during the interview? Now’s your chance to show it in action.
2. Ask before you jump. The question or scenario you get will probably be complicated or multi-part. It’s critical that teams show the panel they fully understand every aspect of the issue at hand and that they will clarify anything they don’t understand before using the client’s time and money. When teams rush off to solve problems as quickly as possible without fully understanding the task, panels view them as more likely to fail. It’s the difference between being a “box checker” and a true strategic partner.
3. Keep your eyes on the prize. It’s normal to devote the limited time you have just to answering the question. However, teams that win go one step further they connect their answer to the long-term client needs (that they identified in the preparation process). This means more than just tacking on “…so we can finish on time and within budget” to your answer. For example, a team that was interviewing for a hospital improvement project determined that the client need involved enabling patients with cancer to get the treatment they needed without disruption. They answered questions from the perspective of a patient who needed to go to and from the hospital smoothly to get critical chemotherapy.
4. Speak from your role. During a pressure-packed answer to an impromptu scenario, it’s normal to want to get your two cents in. But if everyone starts piling on, the team will come across as disjointed. To add to what another team member is saying, speak from your role. Here’s an example: “As the structural engineer, I’d like to add another reason we are recommending you locate the foundation here instead of there…”
5. Focus on the future. When confronting an impromptu scenario, teams often default to a laundry list of how many times they’ve done something similar before. That’s information the panel usually already knows from the proposal. What the panel is looking for is how the firm will apply the knowledge gained. Instead of saying something like “we’ve built six of those buildings before,” use language such as “during the six times we have built that type of structure, the most important thing we learned that applies to your project is…”
With so many qualified AEC firms seeking projects, the difference between first and second place is often a nose. Firms that can master spontaneous scenarios often give themselves a winning edge, because the client understands their processes and believes the team members can work together.
Scott Johnston leads the Johnston Training Group Strategic Writing, Presentation Skills and Interview Coaching programs that enable professional services firms to differentiate themselves and win more work.