Whether they know it by name or not, most people who have worked in the customer service industry are likely familiar with the XY problem. When it comes to troubleshooting an issue for a customer, it is important to be aware of this phenomenon and be able to identify it when it is happening.

The XY problem

Let’s use a simple example:

John has decided he wants to grow a garden in his back yard, but after months of trial and error with various plants, he has had nothing to show for his effort.

After researching the problem on the Internet, he has decided that the issue is that his plants are not getting enough water. Since he has a large back yard and the plants are far away from the spigot attached to his house, he decides to take two hoses and duct tape them together in order to reach.

After about a week of this, the duct tape falls off and John decides to ask his friend Susan for some help. Susan has been tending her own garden and the gardens of some neighbors for a few years. Susan and John don’t see each other often, so Susan is unaware of John’s efforts at growing a garden.

“What is the best way to attach two hoses together?” John asks Susan over coffee one day.

After an hour of back and forth about the type of hose, what he was using to attach them, how long he needs the hose to be and materials that could do the job, John has found a solution and returns home.

Over the next few months, John repeatedly forgets to water his plants because of stress at work. The plants still fail to flourish.

In the XY problem, the X is a stand in for the original problem that a person is trying to solve and the Y is a stand in for the solution that they have decided will fix their problem. The XY problem rears its head when there is a problem in implementing solution Y.

In this case:

  • Problem X is: the plants are not getting enough water.
  • Solution Y is: a long enough hose would be able to bring water to the plants.
  • The XY Problem is: there isn’t a long enough hose, so two hoses need to be joined to make a longer one.

An experienced gardener like Susan may have figured out right away that the most efficient solution to problem X is to install a watering system with a timer. Unfortunately, John failed to mention his issue with his plants at all, so Susan didn’t have enough context to realize that John’s problem with the hoses was an XY problem.

John’s problem may seem overly contrived to some. When a person is first starting out in a new area of study, there are many things that they don’t know. There are also many things that they don’t realize they don’t know.

Why the XY problem is a problem

The XY problem can be extremely frustrating for many reasons:

  • John wasted months of time during which he could be enjoying healthy plants and a relaxing hobby of caring for those plans.
  • Replacing dead plants cost John money that he could have spent on other tools for his new hobby.
  • John and Susan could have spent their time over coffee catching up instead of wasting time and energy over a problem that didn’t need solving.
  • John and Susan would still need to solve the real problem later, spending more time and energy.

Sometimes, solutions to XY problems can be a great way to learn about things or they might be referenced to solve problems in the future. However, this is generally the exception and not the rule.

How to work around the XY problem

The best way to avoid wasting time and energy on solving a problem is to give the proper context. It is far more cost-effective to spend a little more time describing the problem than to solve the problem only to have to solve another problem in the future.

When you ask someone for help, keep these things in mind:

  • Before asking your question, accept that your original premise might be wrong. That’s OK.
  • Explain the broader picture. Why do you need a longer hose? What will you be doing with the hose?
  • Be open to answering questions about your issue and provide details.
  • List other solutions you have already tried and why they were not suitable.

When you are trying to provide help to someone:

  • Ask for the broader picture.
  • Ask probing questions.
  • Explain your questions. The asker may not understand the subject matter enough to understand how your questions are relevant.
  • Ask what other solutions the asker has tried.

How the XY problem is relevant to computers

Computers are both simple and complex machines. They’re simple in that they do exactly what you tell them to. The complexity comes from understanding how your instructions are interpreted and how instructions interact with each other.

Some examples include:

The issues caused by applications that don’t allocate their resources properly are the reason for the dreaded question: “Have you tried turning it off and on again?” The symptoms of improper resource allocation are varied and often difficult to narrow down, so knowing that a lot of documents are open or the computer has been on for a long time is important.

There are many applications available for fixing slow computers by “fixing registry errors”. More often than not they cause more problems than they solve. These applications don’t bother with understanding the context of the issue and go straight into solving whatever “issues” they find. Since the Windows Registry is a complex set of interacting configurations, removing something that seems innocuous can have larger consequences down the road.