What is an In-Tray or In-Basket Exercise?

The in-tray exercise is a widely used assessment centre exercise because of the diversity of behaviours as well as, Knowledge, Skills and Attitudes (KSA’s) that can be tested. For example the main behaviour’s that you will need to demonstrate in this exercise are:

• Planning,
• Prioritisation,
• Decision making,
• Management style,
• Evaluation of situations,
• Analysis of information,
• Speed & Accuracy,
• Effective use of Time.

It is therefore vital that you master this exercise, as it will form a substantial part of your final score. This is often the type of exercise many candidates struggle with so if you have participated in this type of exercise before you may need to discover ways to improve your score.

By practicing In-tray exercises you will become familiar with the type of question and learn how best to respond to the problems or issues raised in the items improving your marks and chances of success. This will help you to recognise which types of behaviours you most need to demonstrate in such an exercise to achieve success. The particular behaviour, skills, attitudes or knowledge that are being tested for will vary according to your job specification and your type and style of organisation.

Your In-tray exercise will usually form two parts, first will be reading and understanding the variety of ‘in-tray items you are given with the brief. Secondly, after you’ve read through all the In-tray items you will then have to answer questions on how you would respond to the situations each question presents. The most popular formats are:

• You are given between 12-24 in-tray items, which you have to priorities and say how you’d action by answering a series of 15-30 multiple choice questions.
• You are given between 12-24 in-tray items, which you have to priorities and say how you’d action. This is then followed by a ‘Justification’ with an Assessor or as a group discussion on why and how you came to your decisions.
• You are given up to an hour to read through 15-35 in-tray items, prioritise and decide possible courses of action. Then you would have a gap before you either:
           o Answer a set of 12-24 multiple choice questions (often more complex in nature); and / or,
           o Justify your proposed actions to an assessor or through a group discussion for up to another hour.

The complexity of the issues you are presented with and the nature of the questions you have to answer will be directly related to the nature and level of position you are applying for. For the higher level positions some In-tray exercises can last up to three hours, but if this is the case the exercise is often split into several parts as described in the last type of popular format.

For the majority of In-tray exercises you will be presented with an emergency situation or one in which you have very little time to deal with your scenario presented. It is these sort of situations that will show the assessor the type of behaviours you exhibit in pressured and reactive situations.

The most popular type of scenarios you are likely to be presented with will be along the lines of one of the following:

• You’ve just started a new job and pop into your new office on Saturday to familiarise yourself with things before starting on Monday and you receive a call from your new boss saying they want you to stand-in for them for the next two weeks.
• It is you last day before a week’s break and your boss’s secretary calls you to say that due to a family emergency your boss has had to go at once and wants you to manage things during their absence.
• You’ve been in your job for a short while and your boss asks you to manage your department’s strategic project over the next two weeks as they have been called immediately up to head office.

In addition to this scenario description, you will also be several pieces of information. The more familiar you are with analysing this type of information the greater your score will be.

• A description of your role.
• Background information on the situation.
• Organisational chart or description of responsibilities.

It is really important to only use the provided information in your decisions, you will not gain extra marks by bringing in additional knowledge from your own experience –remember it is your behaviour they are testing.

As you practice this type of exercise you will be able to see the most appropriate behaviour’s in yourself and more easily display them. You will continually update your portfolio and Index cards to help support you in your quest for your career goal. In this way you will more easily be able to show the assessors that you possess what they require and have an awareness of the wider picture.

If you are applying for top-level management, or strategic roles, you will find that your In-tray exercise is longer and has a greater intensity contained within its items than those on lower grades. The type of issues you will be asked to review and action will reflect the nature of the role you have applied for.

If you are applying for a strategic role then it is likely that you can expect a significant number of your in-tray items to test this aspect. Whereas, if you are hoping for a management role, your In-tray items are more likely to raise issues about team building, coaching and motivation.

You may find that you are required to produce written responses to items, e.g. emails, letters or memos. Remember you being assessed on how you deal with these items not on the quality of your responses (but make sure you don’t make silly typing or spelling errors as this will lose marks).

If you need to write a response then you must be mindful of the following and ensure your response is appropriate.

• Your style should match that of the In-tray item.
• Your tone should reflect the level of importance / priority of the In-tray item.
• You should be mindful of who is to receive your response i.e.
           o Member of your staff,
           o Director or
           o External person or Stakeholder.
• Incorporate the style of your Organisation. For example,
           o Use of bullet points or text,
           o Acronyms or descriptions,
           o Formal or informal language.

As the intensity of the exercises increases the likelihood of being able to complete the whole exercise in the allocated time diminishes. It is how you respond to an issue that matters more than being able to complete the whole exercise. The latter should always be your goal as this aspect of the exercise is never known and the more you are able to do will improve your ability to have a ‘true’ understanding of the issues presented.

Your assessors will score you on the following; the importance given to each point will vary according to the behaviour’s required for the job.

• How well you identify the ‘Key’ issue of the item.
• Your interpretation of the information provided.
• Ease and speed with which you arrive at your decision.
• The way in which you evaluate the information.
• How effective your actions / decisions are in dealing with the presented problem.

During your preparation for the In-tray exercise it is important to keep in mind the Behaviour’s your Assessors will be looking for you to exhibit and scoring you on. You will want to maximise your score and by focusing your activities on the following points you will concentrate on completing the task rather than getting draw into the minute of the problems posed.

You may also be interested in:

What is an Assessment Centre?
Who uses the Assessment Centre?
What are the Different Types of Assessment Centre?
What Format Does an Assessment Centre Take?
Who are the Assessors?
What are Assessment Centre Exercises?
What is an In-Tray Exercise?
What is a Presentation Exercise?
What are Group Exercises?
What are Role Play Exercises?


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