asking good questions and the xy problem



~2 min read


398 words

When I first come across a problem and I don’t really understand it, I start thinking about potential solutions. Some of those solutions end up being very specific. They’re my attempts to break the problem down into smaller pieces to get me closer to my ultimate goal.

Often, the approach I adopt is pragmatic albeit naive. It’s not the way that someone who’s traveled this path before would.

This is the benefit / curse of adopting a beginner’s mind. The mind’s unencumbered from preconceived notions of what is “right”. At the same time, sometimes, and I’d argue, not that rarely, the “right” way is “right” for a reason.

Another common occurrence as I’m trying to solve the probltem is that I’ll run into an issue with one of my sub problems. This feels very knowable, so I start looking around for solutions.

If none come up immediately, I might ask others. It’s at this point that I have a choice: I can ask the original question, the big one, or I can ask about the narrow one.

Eric S. Raymond wrote an essay titled, ”How To Ask Questions The Smart Way” in which he recommendations against asking the narrow question:

Q: How can I use X to do Y?

A: If what you want is to do Y, you should ask that question without pre-supposing the use of a method that may not be appropriate. Questions of this form often indicate a person who is not merely ignorant about X, but confused about what problem Y they are solving and too fixated on the details of their particular situation. It is generally best to ignore such people until they define their problem better.

This has inspired the term the “XY Problem” to describe the situation.

I might quibble with Raymond’s tenor in describing the questioner, but the overall point that it is more useful to ask about X if what you care about is X.

This is hard! Particularly if you’re new to a problem space. The strategy I’ve found most useful is to ask about X, but provide context about my approach and why I think it be related to Y. Then, folks who are more familiar with the problem space can judge for themselves whether answering Y is the linchpin or if I’m on the wrong track altogether and need to step back.

Hi there and thanks for reading! My name's Stephen. I live in Chicago with my wife, Kate, and dog, Finn. Want more? See about and get in touch!