What is the XY problem (and how do I solve it)?

System Administration

Kerry Gorgone

Kerry Gorgone

Sep 30, 2022

"What is the XY problem (and how do I solve it)?" Find out in this episode of Appfire Presents: The Best IT Service Management Show by Appfire.

P3express.com founder Dmitrii Ilenkov joins Appfire's Kerry O'Shea Gorgone to talk about the XY problem. We cover what it is, why it throws a wrench in the works for IT service management and project management (and even healthcare), how to identify this issue, and how to address it.

About the guest

Dmitrii Ilenkov is the founder of P3express.com, and a project management practitioner with more than 10 years of experience.

About the show

The BEST ITSM Show by Appfire brings you expert insights for IT service delivery, so your employees and customers have what they need to succeed. Get the right tech and tips for the right job at hand. Look like you’ve come from the future with all your new ITSM smarts. Every episode is a brisk 10 minutes—less time than it takes to provision a laptop or troubleshoot a tech support issue.

For your convenience, here is the transcript of this episode:

What is the XY problem (and how do I solve it)?

Kerry:  Today we’re going to talk about the XY problem, what is it and how do I solve it. To help us with that is Dmitrii Ilenkov, founder of P3express.com. Stick around for 10 minutes of awesome.

Dmitrii, thanks for being here. What is the XY problem? Then you can tell me how to fix it.

Dmitrii:  What is the XY problem? Very simple. You have a problem, X, and you have some solution in mind, that’s Y. You come to a real expert asking for your solution to the problem. You’re asking them to help with Y, not with X. 

Let’s start from a broader picture. Did you know that we never or very seldom use almost 50% of features in any software in general?

Kerry:  Really? That seems low.

Dmitrii:  That’s what Standards Group reports it as. If we remember how we’re using different apps and different services, I’m afraid that it’s pretty much true. We often use only 20% of features and 50% almost never. That’s a lot, right? 

Kerry:  Yes. It makes me think that they don’t know how much stuff is in their software.

Dmitrii:  Exactly. That’s one of the reasons. We can come up with some more. Sometimes the interface design is not that good and we really need some dark magic to reveal the hidden features. 

Kerry:  Dark magic. I like the sound of that. 

Dmitrii:  Sometimes it happens you need something, but you can’t find the button. What do you do? You try, try, try. Sometimes the problem is about poor project management, when there is a significant scope creep, someone is in love with the gold plating and people keep adding and adding new features. That’s also true, we never needed them from the beginning.

Kerry:  What are you supposed to do to help people then that call you for help using their software if it can do more than they realize it can do? Maybe they’re trying to make up a solution for a problem, and the solution is already in there and they just don’t know it sometimes.

Dmitrii:  Yes, exactly. That is what happens way too often. That’s what is called the XY problem. That’s true. That’s when the user has problem X and the user wants you to help them, but unfortunately, they don’t ask your help for the X problem, they ask your help for Y, which stands for the attempted solution.

Kerry:  So, they have a fix in mind for the actual problem they think. 

Dmitrii:  Exactly. That’s how our brain works. Our brain is a bit lazy, so we just pick the first idea, we just pick the first possible option, and here we go. 

For example… actually, this example is not about software, but it’s about engineering, and it’s the first deliberately described XY problem. A company manufacturing elevators faced complaints from the users that said the elevators are too slow. What did the company try? The company tried to make the elevators faster. That’s kind of tough because an elevator is very heavy and it’s hard to make it faster, so they tried making lighter elevators. 

Until some brilliant engineer suggested asking users for details. He found out that people just weren’t waiting for the elevator in the lobby and weren’t in the elevator waiting for their floor to come up. So, the right solution here is, X problem, it’s too boring to wait for an elevator.

Kerry:  So, they thought the solution was faster elevators.

Dmitrii:  Yes. But that doesn’t solve the X problem, it will be still boring. 

Kerry:  People get bored very quickly.

Dmitrii:  True. 15 seconds is just enough. The real solution here was add mirrors. Put some mirrors in the elevator, put some mirrors in the lobby, people start looking at themselves, that’s kind of cool, they love it, it’s not boring anymore, and it’s way cheaper than creating faster elevators.

That’s a perfect example. 

Kerry:  That’s why we have mirrors in elevators.

Dmitrii:  Yes. If you have a mirror in your apartment building, now you know why. Unfortunately, these XY problems are not only about engineering, not only about software, it’s very much about product management. When a project manager keeps adding features because he didn’t make the customer interview properly. 

In project management and in business development in general, people come to me and say, “I need more sophisticated software for scheduling,” but really they don’t need any software at all, they need some more training for their employees, they need a better project management culture in the company, maybe some methodology, and then the probably proceed to a scheduling software. That’s what happens all of the time. 

Recently, while thinking about this podcast, I realized that we have the same problem with doctors. Once I came to a doctor having high blood pressure, and I asked for pills, naturally, because that’s what you do when you go to your doctor.

Kerry:  Right, you get pills.

Dmitrii:  For me, that seemed to be a solution for a problem. I’m not an expert, but I was asking an expert for a solution created in my head. But the doctor was smarter than me, and they asked me some questions, and then they said, “I can give you pills, but that’s not the solution. The solution is you change your work-life balance.” 

That’s how bad it is. We’re ruining our products, we’re ruining our health, we’re ruining our software with this XY problem.

Kerry:  Wait. We need to come back to it for just one second. When you gave the example of the elevators, it was a while before one of the engineers was like wait a second, did anybody actually ask these people why they want faster elevators, did anybody get context. That’s what I hear you saying, too. That’s what your doctor did was figure out that you’re working 20 hours a day or something and that’s why you’re stressed, and pills aren’t going to fix that. 

How do you figure out that you need more context?

Dmitrii:  Exactly. You need to ask for more context. But asking, “Give me more context,” is not usually very actionable. Probably ask, “Why do you need this solution? When did this problem happen the first time? What was going on when it happened the first time?” You’re asking more and more questions. 

That’s how you perform your customer interviews. There is a fantastic book by Rob Fitzpatrick, Ask Your Mom Why. That’s a very tiny book, so I highly recommend everybody to read it. Asking the right questions is very good for solving XY problem.

Kerry:  What’s the first indication that something might be the XY problem? When somebody calls and presents you with an issue, and you’re like, “I wonder why they want an answer to that problem, that’s weird,” that’s when you start asking for more info?

Dmitrii:  Yes. For me, the first indication is that somebody is over-confident about the solution they’ve found. How can you be confident about any solution if you haven’t tried it yet or can’t try it? That’s the first indicator. Someone says, “I need this to be done.” Do you? 

The best option is always asking for more details. It’s not that hard, but 99% of the time you really need it, so don’t look for any extra indicators, just start asking more questions, asking for more details. 

There is also another option. In my opinion, it’s even better to combine them. Try to create prototypes, MVPs, as often as possible. Don’t go for a perfect solution. Don’t go for something that you can release straight away. No. It’s better that you save some money and create a prototype and show it to your user, to your customer, and ask how they feel about it, does it solve their problem or not. Then they will give you even more detail, and you will be able to see how they use your product.

Kerry:  It’s like Ford said, “If I asked people what they wanted, they would have told me faster horses.” Instead, he showed them the Model T.

Dmitrii:  Absolutely.

Kerry:  Dmitrii, thank you so much for being here to talk about the XY problem. This has been Appfire Presents The Best ITSM Show by Appfire. You can find more episodes at appfire.com/resources/resource-library/videos-webinars. To find more information from Dmitrii, you can go to P3Express.com.

Thanks. We’ll see you next time.

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