The XY problem

Ever heard about the XY problem? Well, quoting from a site dedicated to this, “the XY problem is asking about your attempted solution rather than your actual problem. This leads to enormous amounts of wasted time and energy, both on the part of people asking for help, and on the part of those providing help.”

And the XY problem is more common than you might think – I was telling my girlfriend some weeks ago about the XY problem and she went: that is exactly what happened to me today! One of her colleagues asked for her help in finding an internal reference number for an invoice. So my girlfriend pulled a copy of the invoice from one of the systems, using information from the invoice copy she tried to track down that internal reference that was not really used by people in her department in another system and after some time she asked her colleague: but why do you need that internal reference number? So I can retrieve a copy of the invoice, the colleague said. If the colleague had stated from the start what she wanted – the invoice copy – instead of asking about a reference that she thought would help her retrieve the invoice, it would have not wasted unnecessary time for both of them.

And that happened in a finance environment, but it happens even more often in software development. I actually got to hear about the XY problem from our CTO who has had a fair share of XY questions received from the developers.

In my opinion, something that can be used (besides the solutions on the XY problem site) is the 5 whys technique, used in process improvement. Used to determine the root cause of a defect or problem by repeating the question “Why?” several times (you do not have to ask the question exactly 5 times, can be less or more) I think it can also be used here, without even having to ask to many times the why, as when you do when using it in process improvement – it might just take one why to find out the X of the problem instead of the Y.