XY-problem and project estimates

Arseni Mourzenko
Founder and lead developer
October 8, 2016
Tags: communication 25 thoughts 6 short 48

A year ago, I was work­ing as an ar­chi­tect and IT con­sul­tant with a com­pa­ny on a large soft­ware pro­ject. The pro­ject was es­ti­mat­ed by their in-house lead de­vel­op­er, and I was asked to re­view the es­ti­mate to check if it's cor­rect.

The only prob­lem was that I had no freak­ing idea that half of the pro­ject fea­tures ex­ist­ed, and the oth­er half were very vague for me to ac­tu­al­ly es­ti­mate them. Nev­er­the­less, I re­ceived the es­ti­mate and was or­dered to re­view it, and my boss did the same. Dur­ing the meet­ing where we had to ex­press our even­tu­al con­cerns about the es­ti­mate, my boss found that the es­ti­mate lacked a few points, such as pro­ject man­age­ment or test­ing. I agreed.

How­ev­er, this is ex­act­ly an XY-prob­lem. The fact that I was asked to re­view the es­ti­mate was ir­rel­e­vant of the orig­i­nal prob­lem of un­cer­tain­ty of every­one—in­clud­ing the lead de­vel­op­er him­self—that the es­ti­mate made any sense. And that means that it's not the re­sult, but the process which should have been re­viewed.

If I both­ered think­ing a bit about why I was asked to check the es­ti­mate, in­stead of blind­ly try to do what I was asked to do, I would have re­act­ed very dif­fer­ent­ly. In­stead of look­ing at the re­sult, I would have checked how the re­sult was at­tained. The re­sult, i.e. the es­ti­mate it­self, be­comes com­plete­ly ir­rel­e­vant here. I don't even have to look at it. In­stead, I have to talk to the lead de­vel­op­er, and ask him to ex­plain me how he did what he did.

This shift has sev­er­al im­pli­ca­tions:

This case is a good ex­am­ple of a sit­u­a­tion where the orig­i­nal re­quest makes no real sense in its cur­rent form, and the per­son be­ing asked to do the thing should first search for the prob­lem at the ori­gin of the re­quest.