Let’s imagine, for a moment, you’re trying to put a nail into some wood but you are a complete novice to the very idea of wood and nails.
The whole thing has you completely perplexed but you’re a do-er, so you put your mind to how you’re going to get this nail into this wood. The best plan you come up with is to take the nail and slap it into the wood with your hands. You run into a problem though, the wood is tough and nails, as they currently exist, don’t really work like that. Let’s call this dilemma “Problem X”.
Being a problem solver, you think to yourself “If only the nails were sharper and with a larger head, I would be able to slap them in with my hands no problem at all.” Let’s call that “Solution Y”. So you head to the hardware store and you tell an attendant that what you really need are nails with large heads and sharper points. The attendant is notably confused at what is undoubtedly a strange request but takes you to the nail section anyway. You look at many nails for several painful minutes, never quite finding the right size to make it slap-able. You take a fair amount of your own time and that of the attendant before they finally ask why you need a bespoke nail solution. It is at that point that they realize that the real problem you have is that you need a hammer.
In this scenario, the solution you have come up for problem X is a fair effort on your part but it is working with imperfect information and a lack of technical expertise.
The XY problem, at its core, is that the problem you think you have and the one you actually have are two different things and when the time comes to get help, the person helping you may not be able to see the actual problem on account of them helping with the one you think you have.
Does this mean you should never try to fix your own problems?
Of course not, but what it does suggest is that you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help from an expert early and often. If you’re one of our exceptional clients then that’s what we’re here for – give us a call! However, if you do decide to tackle a problem head-on, which, fair dues – a natural curiosity and love of technology are what got most of us into this business, at least do your best to avoid the XY problem if and when it comes time to get help.
So, how do I ask the right questions to receive the answer I’m looking for?
- Be sure to include the broadest possible picture of your problem. In our example, you told the attendant that the nails didn’t have flat enough heads, which is definitely a problem from your point of view as a nail-slapper but the attendant would only go along with it for so long as they were unaware that you didn’t know what a hammer was. Do your best to include as much of the original problem as you can in your reporting even if you believe that you are on your way to a solution.
- Do your best to provide additional details if they are requested. Troubleshooting is ⅓ technical knowledge and ⅔ roleplaying Sherlock Holmes, so if the Dev or IT professional is asking questions odds are good they’ve got the scent and might be narrowing in on a real solution. Be as forthcoming with information about your process as you can and we promise greatly improved results.
- If you think you’ve done well in your own private investigation and you think that you’ve ruled out some possible causes of the problem, that’s great! Tell us all about it. Just be sure to explain why you’ve ruled it out and how you arrived there. The more information about your problem you can provide, the more likely your troubleshooter is able to deliver a comprehensive solution.
So that’s the XY problem. While it is most famously an IT and a Customer Success phenomenon it can also be just a good way to look at any problems you might be having, especially when you are dealing with an outside agency like Convertus. In the end, it’s just a little insight into how to better navigate the dark waters of technological hiccups and troubleshooting. If you have any questions about computers, convoluted metaphors, or hardware, be sure to get in touch. We would love to hear from you!