Posted by: Jack Henry | June 16, 2020

Editor’s Corner: Yak Shaving

Now and then, I receive some interesting articles from the Editor’s Corner audience. The latest one was about two terms from the Engineering business world: yak-shaving and bikeshedding. The mental image of shaving a yak made me laugh and made me curious, so I’ll share that term with you. To learn about bikeshedding, you’ll have to check out the full article at

And remember to always offer your yak a hot towel after a shave!


“Shaving a Yak” means performing a seemingly endless series of small tasks that must be completed before the next step in the project can move forward.

For example, let’s say you want to drive to the store to pick up some groceries, and you notice that your car has a flat tire. So you decide to put some air in the tire, only you remember that you lent your tire pump to your neighbor. So now you have to go to your neighbor’s house and ask them for the tire pump back. Only, there’s a problem: last week your 5-year-old daughter ruined one of the neighbor’s couch cushions, and you promised you’d replace it, so now you feel guilty about asking the neighbor for the tire pump when you haven’t fulfilled your promise. Unfortunately, the couch cushions were stuffed with genuine Tibetan yak fur, so now you end up having to shave a yak…

Although this is a silly story (see the original story here), it is characteristic of the kinds of nested task dependencies often found in a large engineering project. It may seem like you are spending a lot of time working on things that have nothing to do with your overarching goal.

Yak-shaving is a value-neutral term: if the small tasks are really required, then it’s a good thing; but if they are not, then it’s not. In the story given above, it’s not actually necessary to shave the Yak in order to get to the grocery store; what’s really happening is the protagonist is making life difficult for themselves as a strategy for avoiding what they believe to be an emotionally difficult interaction with the neighbor. Similar scenarios happen in software projects fairly often.

Kara Church

Technical Editor, Advisory

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