The Real Problem

When finding solutions, it is essential to get at the real problem, not the thing that people say is the problem.

The XY Problem

The XY Problem is known to anyone who tries to solve problems for people, even if they don’t use that name for it. It happens when people present their problem in terms of their idea about a solution rather than your the actual problem. Unfortunately, this leads to enormous amounts of wasted time and effort, both on the part of people asking for help, and on the part of those providing help.

It goes like this:

  1. Someone has a problem, X.
  2. They think that Y will help them solve their problem, X.
  3. They ask about Y.
  4. Someone helps them to do Y.
  5. It turns out that Y doesn’t solve their real problem, X.

On a good day, the person with problem X will realize that they’re solving the wrong problem and shift their focus to X. All too often, however, they either continue to believe that Y is the answer, and go back to step 2, or they pick a different Y and try that instead.

Example: The Paper Problem

It isn’t uncommon for people to talk about “the paper problem”. The thinking goes that if an organization can go digital and get rid of all the paper, the organization will be more efficient.

What happens is this:

  1. A customer is frustrated by their administrative processes.
  2. They assume that the problem is that they’re using paper (Y), rather than computers.
  3. The IT supplier, keen for business, offers to write an application for them.
  4. On a good day, the application reduces the administrative overhead, and they customer is happy.
  5. On a bad day, the underlying problems (X) with the administrative process have not been addressed.

In fact, the customer may now be in a worse position:

  • IT acts as an amplifier, making good processes better, but bad processes worse. They can now do the wrong thing quicker.
  • IT systems are more expensive to change than paper systems. The problems are now baked in.

And all too often, both customer and supplier think that the problem is better IT. Both spend time and resource on improving Y, when the real problem is X.

The Presenting Problem

A similar issue occurs when people ask about symptoms of their problems rather than their underlying causes. The initial symptoms are sometimes called the “presenting problem”. Relieving these symptoms may make the help-seeker feel better, and where the underlying problem isn’t serious, that can be sufficient. However, if the underlying problem is more serious, then a “cure” which simply masks the underlying issue is likely to do more harm than good.

Example: The Beeping Smoke Alarm

  1. My smoke alarm keeps beeping (presenting problem)
  2. I take the battery out to prevent the beeping (relieving symptoms)
  3. I fail to put in a new battery (which would solve the underlying problem)
  4. My home, family and my life are at greater risk


There are various ways to overcome these issues:

As Someone with a Problem

  • Choose the best forum to seek solutions. In particular, recognize that some people have a vested interest in you solving the presenting problem rather than the underlying problem.
  • Treat people who are trying to help you with respect and patience. First, because it is the right thing to do. Second, because doing so means that they’re more likely to help you in return.
  • Be open to new ways of approaching your problem.
  • When explaining your problem, try to be concise, precise and informative.
  • Describe your goal, and what you’ve tried already.
  • Focus on symptoms, not guesses.
  • Accept that a better question is progress, even if you don’t feel any closer to a solution.

As a Problem Solver

  • When someone comes to you with a problem (even if that someone is yourself), begin with the assumption that there is an underlying problem that they’re not asking about.
  • Ask about goals. When people ask about Y, they don’t want Y; they want the benefits that they expect Y will give them. Use the 5 Whys Technique.
  • Learn to recognize common occurrences of these problems As you gain experience in your field, you’ll find that people often ask about Y when they really want to to know about X.
  • Ask about other symptoms.
  • If you carry a hammer, beware of assuming that every problem is a nail. (If you’re in IT, for example, don’t assume that technology is the answer to everything. Both people-problems and systemic issues often masquerade as technical issues.)
  • Accept that you can’t solve everyone’s problems. Sending someone elsewhere (or even doing nothing) is better than making things worse.

Above All

The most important step in solving any problem is to acknowledge that you have it.

You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes
Well, you might find
You get what you need
The Rolling Stones

2 thoughts on “The Real Problem

  1. I am a startup and innovation coach in Kenya. I really love the posts they are very simple yet so profound. My one request is… if can I use them in my class.

    1. You’re welcome to use anything you find here in any way you like, with the exception of any images where the copyright belongs to someone else.

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