Yak Shaving

You know yak shaving right? It's that idea that you start with a problem, then find that to solve that problem you need to solve another. Then you realise you can only solve this second problem by solving a third. And this goes on and on, until before you know it - so the saying goes - you find yourself halfway up a mountainside shaving a yak. And you think, "How did I get here?" Well, that's how I think of it anyway.

Lazy Tom supplied no alt text, give him grief!

The problem isn't that yak shaving (as an endpoint) is ridiculous, although it is ridiculous. The problem is that the process you use to get there feels like a logical series of decisions. At each step, the idea that solving another problem is the best way to solve this problem seems right at the time. So where does the disconnect happen? When exactly, do things become ridiculous?

I guess the dream of yak shaving imagines problems like a line of dominos. The original problem is off in the distance somewhere, but stretching from it to you is a line of other problems. The idea is that when you finally reach the end of this line and solve that problem, all the other problems will topple in succession and your original problem will be solved. But this doesn't happen. You never reach the end of the line, and the line never topples. This thinking is a form of perfectionism; the idea that at some point the problem can be entirely solved, all the pieces of the jigsaw can be found, and they'll come together with a satisfying click. As with the end of the rainbow, this goal is forever elusive.

Where I work, there is yak shaving happening all over. You can see people who, having identified a problem, have extrapolated from that problem to other problems, and are now clearly thinking, "If I just solve this here problem, the rest one will fall too." They're working hard at that problem even though sometimes from your point of view it doesn't make sense.

Actually, that's wrong. Usually, it does make sense, but you tend to find yourself thinking, "You're shaving the wrong yak there mate!"

It's a real problem when you have a group of people who are meant to be working together towards a common goal, and in fact, they are all shaving different yaks. This isn't only a problem because it causes them to all pull in different directions, but also because the language they use starts to become a mess.

Because of the way these things overlap, people often describe their yaks in quite similar ways, even though they're different. They use the same terminology and refer to much the same goals. This can cause confusion when it seems like people are doing the same thing when really they're not. And even if they were, the things they're doing aren't even related to the original problem they should be solving.

What's needed is for everyone to let go of the shears, step away from their yaks, and remember the original problem they were trying to solve in the first place. But that is easier said than done. Nobody wants to stop yak shaving because the steps they took to get there seemed so logical at the time.