Context is all: the XY Problem

I’ve been working in web and software development for…. ohhh, let’s not talk about how long. That’s a lot of projects planned and delivered, and one of the things that often comes up when doing requirements capture – whether it’s for a large-scale project or a simple update – is this:

Is what you’re telling me you need, actually going to solve the problem you’ve got?  

Essentially, it’s not uncommon for people to identify a problem (or half-identify a problem), then jump to a possible solution, then tell us that what they want is that solution. But in software development, as in so many walks of life, there’s usually many ways that you can solve a problem. And since some solutions are better than others, and some proposed ‘solutions’ actually aren’t, that can end up with a lot of time spent down blind alleys.  

So as an agency what we do – before we start planning anything – is work through a process of discovery, asking probing questions to try to find out what the actual problem is. What’s the context? What are the symptoms? Who’s affected, and what’s their input? How is it impacting the business on a broader level? What solutions have been thought of or tried? If we’re allowed into the process: framing the problem and working towards a solution - rather than being presented with a ‘we need you to build this’ - projects are much more collaborative and the outcomes much more effective.

Anyway, I was excited to learn the other day that this phenomenon has a name: the XY problem. Where X is the actual thing that needs to be resolved or improved, and Y is what is presented to the person or agency who are asked to help, often resulting in tangents and confusion.  The term was coined here – but the one-liner below nails it:

The problem occurs when people get stuck on what they believe is the solution and are unable step back and explain the issue in full.

Quite possibly you’re reading this thinking, we’ve been calling it the XY problem for years, have you been hiding under a rock?  I may be one of today’s 10,000, but there should be a word to describe “the joy of discovering that a phenomenon you've known about for years has a convenient name”.

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