What is the XY Problem?

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.


Or to put it concisely, it’s when someone asks about their attempted solution, rather than about their problem.

I’m going to exaggerate to illustrate an example here, because I want to make it crystal clear what’s going on here.

Let’s say you work at a carving factory, and you’re in charge of all of the tools that the carvers need to do their job. When a tool breaks, a carver comes to you for a replacement. And let’s also say that each carver is tasked with taking a 10′ x 10′ x 10′ block of stone and reducing it down to a 1.5′ x 1.5′ x 1.5′ smooth cube.

A carver comes up to you and says “I need a new chisel, mine broke”. So you happily provide her a new chisel, satisfied that you’ve done your job and that she’s doing hers. Except, the next day, the same carver comes back and says “I need a new chisel, mine broke” again, so with a bit of a puzzled look on your face you go get her another chisel. The next day, same carver, same request again. And the day after. And the day after that.

You also notice that some carvers have completed two full 10′-cubed-to-1.5′-cube stones this week, while the one who has burned through 5 chisels has barely made any progress. The other carvers have been using diamond-tipped saws and jack hammers and other heavy duty tools in addition to the chisels, depending on how much material they were trying to remove at a particular time.

This is the XY Problem. The carver has spent so much time focusing on what she thought was the solution (“just keep getting a new chisel every time mine breaks”), instead of asking what the actual problem was (“how do I remove a lot of material in the most efficient way possible?”) and in doing so wasted her time and the company’s resources.

In a support-based industry like IT, this can be a depressingly common thing to deal with. Many times, the people you are tasked with supporting learned to do a particular task one way, and so just kept on doing that same task over and over without ever questioning why it was done that way, or if it was ever even necessary in the first place.

It’s completely understandable too – change is hard, and maybe they even got really efficient at doing that task that way, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a better way to do it, or that it’s even necessary to do at all.

One of the most valuable skills I’ve learned is to pick up on when someone’s presenting me with an XY Problem; where they’ve started describing how they want me to solve a problem, rather than telling me what the end goal they’re trying to accomplish is and what they’ve tried in the process. I don’t call the person out because that does nothing but put the requestor in a defensive posture (completely unhelpful) and put me in a frustrated here-just-let-me-do-it state; I just try to get at the desired end state by probing and then re-framing their thinking in terms of what I would do if I were in their shoes. And by doing so, you align yourself with the other person making them much more likely to take your advice.

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