Yak Shaving is: doing seemingly-unrelated tasks to get some real task done.
The name has obscure roots and doesn’t matter; the key is that it makes you think, “Why would you do that?”
Yak shaving can be: I want to make dinner, but I’m doing stairs; moving objects around in order to clear a path to put away the blender which is on the counter in the spot I need to unload the groceries. And then I’ll search through my email to find the name of the recipe so I can google it, and there in my email there will be something urgent to respond to, it’ll make me check my calendar which will remind me that I have to be somewhere tomorrow morning which means I need to tell my husband right now that I’m going to need the car, which starts a discussion. The milk is getting warm on the counter. These are all yaks: they’re not what I want to accomplish, but they are on the way to cooking dinner.
Oh and then the recipe says, “Beat the egg whites until stiff” and I look up what that means. I learn that the best tools for beating egg whites are a copper bowl and a balloon whisk — do I go buy these now? Gathering and learning the proper tools is a yak shave, too.
In programming, yak shaving has a reputation as hoop-jumping or time-wasting. Sometimes it is, when I’m shopping for the perfect keyboard under shadow of a promised delivery date. Other yak shaves are key to a smooth development process: activities that save you production outages, that spare your team days of troubleshooting, that guide your users toward the happy path and make them love your app.
There’s a balance here, between making the task doable and forcing the task to be done. Between scrubbing the counters and unloading groceries on the floor. Between researching top balloon whisks, and using a plastic whisk that’s dirty from last week.
Let’s categorize these yaks. Then we can talk about when to fight them, when to avoid them, and when to lovingly shave them clean. Because some of them are worthy opponents! Some of them are distractions, and some of them have secret wisdom on their skin underneath all that hair.
Yakbreeder.com lists five varieties of domestic yak. I’ll use them to categorize the yak shaves that we might do while programming, so that we can decide which ones to skip, and how to tackle the others.
- Black Yak, aka Attack Yak: you must defeat them to proceed.
- Imperial Yaks, aka Yak Stack: one obstacle leads to another and another
- Trim Yaks, aka HackHacking Yaks: these can increase your speed at many tasks
- Royal Yaks, aka Yakkity Yaks: relationships with people help us get work done
- Golden Yaks, the rarest of all: shave them well enough and change the way we work.
The goal is a team development flow that moves forward while getting smoother every day, more predictable and more fun.
There’s a lot to cover, so this is a series. Start with: the Attack Yak!