Monday, January 23, 2017

The XY problem

There's an interesting phenomenon in asking questions: we often ask help to solve the wrong thing. In certain circles, this is called the XY problem, summarized here:
  1. You want to do X
  2. You don't know how to do X, but you think you can get there by doing Y
  3. You don't know how to do Y
  4. You ask for help to do Y
The XY problem is asking about your attempted solution rather than your actual problem. But you won't get much useful help in asking to do Y, because you aren't really trying to solve Y. You're trying to solve X, yet you've invested so much time and energy on your possible solution involving Y that you forget to mention that X is the real problem.

As a result, folks may offer solutions to Y that technically work for Y, but don't help you with X. And that's not very helpful.

I see this happen across the board, in my work with open source software and in my professional career. Even I'm not immune to it; I may decide on a particular solution, and ask for help with that solution. But by not providing the full context of the problem I'm really trying to solve, others aren't able to help me that much.

Use your words. When you have a problem or make a request, tell people what problem you are trying to solve, and what solution you are currently chasing.

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