What problem are you trying to solve?

IT Support
Nate Work

What problem are you trying to solve?

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Nate Work
October 27, 2022

Back in the late aughts, I watched Paul Buchheit, creator of Gmail, tell an audience of software developers not to take their users' feedback literally; too often, they're coming to you with a solution, not a problem. Fourteen years later, I still think about that idea every day.

Recently, this paradox has received a name: the XY problem

For example, a customer might tell you they need darker sunglasses when the problem is that they're experiencing too much glare. The solution might be polarized lenses.

Or, a child might tell you that they need a larger lunch box when the problem is that they're starving at lunch. They're asking for more food at lunch, which requires a larger lunchbox. However, the solution might be to send them to school with a mid-morning snack.

The people we want to help are coming to us with solutions when what we need are their problems.

We all do this naturally, and it's a hard habit to break. I caught myself doing this just a few weeks ago. My old car developed a squeak when entering the driveway. When I called the shop, I told them that I thought the bushings were worn, which wasn't helpful. All they needed to hear was, "When I enter my driveway, I expect no squeaks. However, I hear a squeak."

That's all they needed: When I do A, I expect B to happen. Instead, C happens.

But we can't keep from adding our insights because saying, "my car squeaks" is infantilizing.

A couple weeks ago, a client asked us to forward to him all incoming and outgoing email to/from a staff member - a solution to their problem. While forwarding their mail might be the solution, I couldn't tell because I didn't know what the problem was.

Eventually, I determined my client's problem: 

"I suspect that a departing staff member, who had access to sensitive information, might be exfiltrating data. What can we do to prevent that?"

I can work with that!

It's uncomfortable to question the person paying you, but asking "Why?" is your hired expert's first step in providing value. 

So, if your IT team keeps telling you "No," consider bringing them your problems instead of your solutions - we want to help!

We're all human, though. If you fall into the "I need darker sunglasses" trap, don't worry; I'll be sure to ask, "What problem are you trying to solve?"

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What problem are you trying to solve?

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