The XY Problem is an issue for every organization — caused by poorly executed problem solving techniques. A person is trying to accomplish X, and they come up with a workaround using Y solution. Little did this person know, the original problem could be solved with relative ease — but figuring out their own solution is more difficult or less accurate.
The XY Problem gives I.T. departments a shellacking because you waste time solving the wrong issue. Usually it takes way longer to solve Y than it does to solve the original problem.
This article will show you how the XY problem can cause issues for an entire business proposition, which would cause major IT headaches (aka, get out of Dodge now!). It will also illustrate the XY Problem as a departmental issue. Finally, I’ll show you a few ways to identify if you’re dealing with an XY Problem.
What is the XY Problem
Per XYProblem.info, people create the XY Problem by trying to answer/solve an attempted solution (Y) rather than the actual problem (X).
XY Problem for Startups
Some startups build their entire business on the foundation of the XY Problem. They start off trying to answer a novel problem, for instance, how to stick two pieces of paper together and maintain readability.
They come up with a potential solution, let’s say it’s a glue variant. They ask themselves, “how do we get glue to hold two pieces of paper together?” They dump excessive amounts of time, research and resources into making glue that holds paper together, doesn’t spread, won’t cause a mess and won’t make the paper heavy. The company eventually goes under because they addressed their own solution, not the consumer’s problem.
This company should have asked, “how do we get two pieces of paper to stay together and maintain readability”, instead of “how do we get glue to hold two pieces of paper together?”
During their brainstorming session for the answer, they might ask if glue was the best way to hold paper together. They’d determine that indeed, it’s not. Then they might ask, “Would bent, small metal pieces hold paper together better than glue?” Yes, yes it would. Now explore that. They would have wound up with the paper clip or the stapler.
This example illustrates how big the XY Problem can be. It takes down entire companies, so it can definitely impede the effectiveness of your I.T. department.
The XY Problem for I.T. Departments
I.T. likely deals with the XY Problem more than any other department. A co-worker thinks they have a partial solution for a problem. They get I.T. involved in building/answering their solution and waste tons of people hours and buy unnecessary tools.
The whole time, no one considered the problem, they just tried to fix their solution. They fit a square peg into a round hole. When it’s all said and done, all the stakeholders see is a hole in their wallets and lots of missed opportunity.
I.T. Specific Example
Let’s say you have a Shadow I.T. file sharing problem at your workplace. People are using their own file sharing vendors, like personal Dropbox accounts, to store and share files. In other words, I.T. has lost control over their files.
Your CTO tells you to find a way to make everyone use your existing FTP server instead. So you find ways to lock down USB ports across the company, you make instruction manuals for using FTP clients, you send out threatening emails about the consequences of unauthorized file sharing accounts, you block their websites, you search for Dropbox.exe, etc…
Guess what? People would still find a way to share your files. Don’t believe me? 46% of employees use their own file sharing accounts to store confidential files (Source).
So what was the true XY Problem? Your CTO sent you down the wrong path. He told you to make everyone use your FTP server. He should have told you to get users to securely share files with I.T.’s oversight. After asking a few employees who have dropbox.exe installed, you would have found out that your FTP server doesn’t work for them!
Either it’s too hard to use, can’t transport large enough files, their external customer can’t use it, whatever the case, you would have found out the real problem. Maybe that problem was people tried to use your FTP server but can’t or don’t know how because it’s too hard compared to other solutions.
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For instance, SmartFile offers an FTP replacement that is easier than other file sharing platforms for non-tech savvy users while enhancing monitoring and compliance for I.T. users.
Solving XY Problems Before They Start
In our example, the CTO isn’t fully at fault. You should have asked follow-up questions. Use that Socratic method we all learned about in college.
If you are unwilling to ask the purpose for the task or question directly, find ways to ask “why” 3 or 4 times. It will typically lead you back to the original problem.
Sometimes you don’t know your answering the solution until it’s too late. You might think you need to solve for Y and you had no idea X, or your true problem, existed. This is what usually happens when there is an established way of doing things, like using an internal tool like an FTP server.
To identify this, consider flipping tasks or problems around. Instead of tasking your team with the goal of forcing people to use an FTP server, maybe you should ask, “why is our FTP server forcing people astray?”
That would lead you to the source of your problem so you can get feedback. Feedback from individuals would help realize that your FTP server is the attempted solution (Y), not the problem (X).
Regardless, always be questioning, especially if you feel the XY Problem is giving you a shellacking.