Shaving a Yak, Beside the Bike Shed

Because this is being posted to the Big Bad Internet™, I feel the need to disclaim up front that these terms are not my own, nor are my definitions necessarily the canonically ‘correct’ ones. If you get to the end of the post though, you’ll see that that doesn’t matter. This post is one of hopefully a few, where I capture some known ideas but with my own style and analysis. This is primarily being driven by a desire to give some common concepts that I discuss a home that I can link to, where existing descriptions around the internet may not capture my exact personal views.

A mark of maturity that I’ve noticed in effective teams is an evolved language: they have their own catch phrases, and shortcuts that make communication so fast and efficient within the team. Intention is clear, ambiguity is reduced, and people spend less time analysing subtext that isn’t there.

This culture of communication is heavily rooted in strong interpersonal relationships, which do take some time. However, I’d like to argue that we can actively develop some of this communication culture.

Last month, I spent a week with a software engineering team in New Zealand. Their organisation is in the early stages of trying some big, bold, new ideas, and this team needs to support these somehow. The roadmap is still a little fuzzy, but everyone appreciates that they have a lot of work ahead of them. Success will be heavily influenced by spending the just the right amount of time on the right things, but this is a perilously thin path to success with cliffs and chasms everywhere they look.

To stay in check, everyone on the team needs to feel comfortable to question the validity or extent of a task. Equally, they need to still feel comfortable when on the receiving end of such a question. In many teams, this question might come across with phrases like “Isn’t that enough already?”, or “Is this gold plating?” These often come across as confrontational though, seeming to cut away at the value of the work that somebody has been doing. There are nuances open to interpretation, because as obvious as they may seem, the intent of the phrases is not necessarily clear.

I introduced the team to two new phrases:

Yak Shaving

Your home office chair is making an annoying creaking sound because of a loose bolt. You could tighten it easily, except it uses a hex head and you lent your bit set to your neighbour. You can’t ask for them back, because you first need to return something to him: a special anti-allergy pillow that you borrowed for a friend who was staying last week. But you can’t just return the pillow either, because the dog got into it and ripped half the stuffing out. You don’t want to tell him, because it’s filled with a special yak fur that’s hard to come by, which he needs for his son when he visits: you want to fix it yourself first.

The next thing you know, you’re down at the local zoo, shaving a yak, all to stop a squeaky chair.

All of the decisions to get there were individually justified, but at some point you drift too far away from the original goal for them to still make sense as a whole chain. Just buy a new bit set, or give him some money for a new pillow. Or both. But don’t go and shave a yak.

As Seth extrapolates in his description:

This yak shaving phenomenon tends to hit some people more than others, but what makes it particularly perverse is when groups of people get involved. It’s bad enough when one person gets all up in arms yak shaving, but when you try to get a group of people together, you’re just as likely to end up giving the yak a manicure.

Bike Shedding

This one is from Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, and Wikipedia’s summary is best:

Parkinson observed that a committee whose job is to approve plans for a nuclear power plant may spend the majority of its time on relatively unimportant but easy-to-grasp issues, such as what materials to use for the staff bikeshed, while neglecting the design of the power plant itself, which is far more important but also far more difficult to criticize constructively.

Back with the Team

These two phrases each provided distinctly nuanced versions of the original question.

In the way I try to introduce these phrases, “Are we yak shaving here?” says “I can see all the decisions you’re following, and they all seem legitimate. Standing back here though, with a fresher set of eyes, do you think we are drifting a bit too far from the original goal?” Slightly differently, “Are we bike shedding?” is an explicit call of triviality, but recognizing that it’s an easy trap.

Your team’s definitions can vary; what’s more important is that we had a conversation about how we’d communicate. We took a funny story about yaks, and used that to define some phrases that were relevant to the team. Now, when the team hit these scenarios, they can use one of these phrases knowing that the nuances have been pre-discussed and agreed on.

In truth, in this scenario I actually only told these stories to two members of the team. Within a few hours though I heard them describing their own variants of the story to others. That’s another thing that’s great about these types of communication devices: humans communicate better with stories than dry, independent facts. (You might notice, that for this entire blog post, I just told you a story. J)

Related reading (manually curated by me):