We have all be on interviews where we really want or need the job, so we don’t ask a lot of questions to understand what is coming our way. The company is showing its best self, just like you are in the interview. 

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Neither of us is going to just blurt out things that perhaps, are uncomfortable to discuss.

Interview vs Reality 

We have polished our resume enough to land an interview for the project manager.  We have researched and know, so far, enough about the organization and this project excites us.  Additionally, the fact that we are looking for a new challenge, or enamored of the income or the reputation that will come from our name associated with this company, can blind us to any downsides that may exist.

In the interview, the interviewer or interviewers ask lots of questions about you, your experience, and probably questions of how you would handle certain situations. This should be a trigger for you to start asking questions and sometimes tough questions. After all, you don’t want to accept a job or project that is already set up for failure.

One of our favorite sayings, after accepting a job or project:

“There were a helluva lot of things they didn’t tell me when I signed with this outfit.” Unknown

We have learned through an experience that we don’t have to say that quite as often now.

Perhaps it is not because we just wanted the job, we just do not have a frame of reference from which to generate a mental bank of questions.  In this regard, experiences are opportunities for learning, and that learning is where we understand the value or need for questioning.  Those experiences, especially those where we painfully learn, drive home the need for questions and can move us to explore the operating space of the item under discussion.

In truth, this topic applies to many things if not everything, not just a job interview, but also the scope of the project.  Another truth, one does not need to know all of it, or immediately.  No matter the topic, we should approach the matter at hand as if it were an opportunity to learn, because it is and with an intention to learn.  Also noteworthy, we do not know the entire scope of what we need to learn, what questions we need to ask for an example.  As we learn or ask questions, we will discover other things we need to question.

 Why Didn't They Tell You?

First, it is important that you understand the interviewer(s) are likely not trying to hide anything or some form of malice in the interview. There just may be organization or project history they may not want to bring up and scare you away. It is also possible that those conducting the interview do not believe these things to be a problem or a unique situation to this company.  Thus, they may believe that you already know these things happen since they happen at every other company.  After all, if they are taking time to interview you, they are likely, like you, presenting their best face.

No matter what, we should be well prepared and listen for keywords the interviewer(s) may say in the conversation.

“Why didn’t you tell me this earlier?”

“You didn’t ask.”

Ask Questions

“Question Everything”

As a project manager, you should already know the importance of questions. An effective project manager is experienced in question asking.  In fact, it would be better to describe this scenario as questions on questions. The answers we receive likely to cause, or at least should cause us to seek understanding which will require depending on questions. 

Over time and experience, one will learn to drive out information, issues, and potential problems on previous projects and with previous teams. Take the position that this interview is a stakeholder interview. In reality, it is, the interviewer(s) are stakeholders in the project under discussion as employees of the company.

Many interviewees don’t like to ask questions. This is a good thing because most interviewers see this is as demonstrated interest in the organization and project.


We like to start with some basic questions:

  • Is there an approved business case? (If the response is “this is a strategic project” – be wary).

  • Were success criteria established in the business case? What are the business goals?
  • If there was a previous project manager, ask about their departure: why? Listen to how this answered.

During one interview I asked about the departure of the previous project manager and one interviewer said he was pursuing some other goals. Another interviewer let slip “and good thing for us.”  I followed this with more specific questions. I found out the departed project manager might not have had sufficient experience to handle the diverse projects.

  • How many current projects would I be managing? Is this a typical number concurrent?
  • What is the average size of the project (dollars and duration)?
  • What is the status of the project(s)?
  • What is my reporting structure? Independent? PMO? C-Level?
  • How are resources and talent appropriated? What is the reporting structure?

If there are other project managers, one question you might ask is: Can I meet one of the existing project managers? Sometimes one of them is part of the interview. This is a great opportunity to learn how the organization conducts projects, not just the organization’s propaganda.

In our humble opinion, the best way to learn is through experience.  Another way to learn is by asking questions from those that have had experiences we have not.  Interviews are about questions, and that is from both sides.  To make the best decision, will require learning.  It is incumbent upon the prospective project manager to understand what sort of circumstances they will be working in.