Home > Agile Thoughts, The Agile Team > So There I Am, Shaving a Yak…

So There I Am, Shaving a Yak…

I simply wanted to snap some pictures of my dogs running around the park last weekend.  As I was about to round up the dogs to head to the park, I went to grab my camera, but then realized that I had left it at work.  So I jumped in the car to run by my office to grab the camera, but realized that I didn’t have a key to get into the building.  I knew that a co-worker always had a key, so I started to drive to his house, but then realized that the last time I borrowed something from him, an exotic suit, I never returned it because I had accidentally ripped a pretty big hole in the jacket.  I knew that my co-worker wouldn’t trust me with the office key if I didn’t return the suit, sans hole, but I had not been able to get it repaired because it was made out of yak hair, something I wasn’t even sure I could get.  I contacted a tailor who would be able to repair the suit, but wouldn’t be able to do it unless I was able to provide a supply of yak hair so that she could weave it into a fabric, and then from there use the yak fabric to repair the yak suit jacket….

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So there I was at the zoo, shaving a yak, all so I could take a few pictures of my dogs at the park.

Should We Shave the Yak?

Should We Shave the Yak?

So what does shaving a yak have to do with software development?


Yak shaving is a phenomenon that occurs when you must complete a series of seemingly unrelated tasks in order to ultimately achieve your primary goal.  And yak shaving, as funny as the term may sound, is somewhat common for software development teams.  Yak shaving can happen when we least expect it, and is more likely to happen to those individuals or teams that lack preparation or organization.

Yak shaving is simply a waste of effort to achieve what we believe will provide enough value to outweigh the cost of the effort to achieve it.  We usually don’t set out to shave yaks, we set out to take pictures of our dogs, but then when we get sidetracked in the effort to achieve our primary goal, we forget to slow down to see whether or not the goal is worth the additional effort.  People shaving yaks find themselves chasing rabbits down the rabbit hole, searching for some elusive value, that in the grand scheme of things, they rarely find.

How Do We Avoid Finding Ourselves at the Zoo Shaving Yaks?

In Agile, we generally do not have the luxury to chase rabbits or shave yaks.  The short cycle times of iterations mean that we have to consistently keep an eye on the efficiencies of our actions.  For example, if I were required to show the pictures of my dogs (from my story above) later that same afternoon (think in terms of a demonstration of software to a client), I would have been keenly aware that my attempt to achieve that ultimate goal was not going to be served by heading to the zoo for the yak hair.  In agile we do not get the luxury of endless tinkering, or pursuing perfection, we instead need to regularly measure the goal of our pursuit against the constraints in which we must act, and more importantly, deliver.

There was a time where perfection may have been the goal, but evidence of my own experience, and history in general, bear out that the pursuit of perfection is rarely worth the effort to achieve it, even when perfection is achieved.  Agile is not about setting our sights on a sub-par goal, but rather it is about recognizing that a pursuit of perfection, when reasonably good results would suffice, is simply not worth the additional tinkering and effort to attain.  Goldplating is often the conclusion of this type of undertaking, resulting in a product that may exceed the original customer requirements, but in the customer’s eyes, was not worth the additional effort, time, and cost to achieve.  Can we in good conscience call this type of result a success?  If you have ever experienced your own version of yak shaving, then you know that the answer to that question is a simple no.


Is it ever a good idea?

If you find yourself on the way to the zoo to shave a yak, you may already be too far down the recursive road of tasks in your attempt to complete your original goal with a reasonably successful result.  But if you find yourself heading to the office to get your camera you may still be able to save yourself that trip to the zoo, so long as you are asking the question of whether wanting to take pictures of your dog is worth the effort you will spend in shaving your yak.  Having shaved my fair share of yaks, I can save you the trouble and let you know that it’s rarely worth it.

Keep it simple, clearly identify your short term goals, and keep an eye on the path you are taking towards achieving those goals.  When you get off track, when you start to tinker, when you mindlessly or endlessly attempt to pursue perfection for perfection’s sake, you may be on the way to shaving your own yak.  Lift your head, refocus, and steer clear of the zoo and you may just save yourself some time.

And if not, I have the name of a tailor that does wonderful work with yak hair.

My name is Bill Gaiennie and I am an Agile Trainer and Coach with Davisbase Consulting. If you are interested in Agile Training, please contact us.

  1. June 10th, 2009 at 14:42 | #1

    Thanks for posting, I’ll definitely be subscribing to your blog.

  2. June 10th, 2009 at 17:18 | #2

    What makes the term Yak Shaving even funnier in a way (and is perhaps proof that it does relate back to a Ren and Simpy cartoon) is that you don’t harvest Yak hair by shaving.. it’s combed or brushed out during the spring molt. (the obscure knowledge you get when your wife has a knitting hobby)

    So if you find yourself shaving a yak, you are not only many many levels of iteration away from your original goal, you are in fact not even doing the right thing, to get the thing you need for the other thing, for….

  3. June 10th, 2009 at 17:28 | #3

    oh my God, I think this is the story of my life!

    What a great lesson (I keep saying I need to live more of my life like an agile project). Excellent job explaining how agile’s time boxing helps us focus to actually ACHIEVE things.

    And now I have a wonderfully new, obscure expression with which to confuse my friends. Thanks!

  4. June 10th, 2009 at 22:48 | #4

    Enjoyed your writing here, Bill. Thanks again for the insights over the last two days!

    - Kyle at CivicPlus

  5. Kinzie
    June 11th, 2009 at 12:25 | #5

    Sounds like my life Bill. Love the analogy to Agile!

  6. January 10th, 2011 at 12:52 | #6

    I think Yak shaving is caused by having to work with really shit software, usually not by choice and then jumping through hoops to make something work.

  7. December 4th, 2011 at 18:57 | #7

    Keeping your camera in the glove compartment of your car as a matter of organisational policy would have avoided this wretched chain of events, buying a cheap disposable camera would be an alternative pragmatic solution for the non-perfectionist. It isn’t so much a question of “Don’t be a perfectionist”, but “Adopt lower standards if you lack order.”

    I too have realised that I am guilty of Yak Shaving, having set out to create a video game I decided that none of the middleware that was available was sufficiently streamlined to boost my productivity by the order of magnitude that I required to be able to complete the game’s development in a matter of a few years. Without tools that were designed to harmonise with the way I chose to conceive my “worlds” I would take decades to realise my vision. Yet, the development of these tools would be made much more rapid through the use of a bespoke programming language – after all, none existed at that time that precisely fit my stringent criteria. I didn’t know myself quite what the specification of my language should be, at first… soon realising that I needed to engage in some Research in order to better perfect its Design. I read about the merits of separate compilation, Eiffel’s melting-ice technology and later on about live-programming. I read about functional programming, referential transparency, term-graph rewriting systems, symbolic programming and constraints. I thought a lot about how an incremental integrated development environment could allow me to build the language/API/system/tools around myself and given how similar this was to Smalltalk that a reevaluation of the GUI was not “off-topic” if its perfection accelerated my future productivity. Every detour could be justified this way and without any imposed deadlines on my hobby project I continued in this pattern, not even blinking as I spent two whole years redesigning my keyboard layout. I was having fun.

    However, there was a darker side… having begun in 1991 it didn’t escape my attention a decade ago that my estimates were, how shall we say, a little “off”. I had become so absorbed in the immediate problem and so fascinated by learning about and integrating new technologies into my design that the original objective of writing a game within a few years having spent a majority of those years building productivity enhancing tools so that the game could be completed painlessly in half of the remaining time which would be a tenth of the time it would otherwise have taken had obviously failed. Numbers did not add up. I had taken too long and wasn’t even past the design phase. Yet, I couldn’t stop what I had been doing… I had to see it through without compromise. I had to strive for perfection as falling short of that lofty goal would determine the limits of my ability. How good could I be? I had to know.

    And then there was the fear. The niggling doubt that festered at the back of my mind that cutting any corner now, avoiding any detours in a blind sprint to the finish, would inevitably welcome disaster as I would likely find my future self using my completed middleware unable to do some overlooked thing because I had “rushed it into production”. The longer I spent on it, the stronger this dread became.

    Don’t shave your Yak.

    At this point, twenty years in, I find it easier to keep shaving. Although, as I have shaved one end of my personal Yak (so to speak) and moved on to the other end, it has started to regrow its coat. Since I began there are new languages, paradigms and architectures to research, digest, assess, reject and/or incorporate. Is the task finite? Well, I am confident that I am finally ahead of the curve… new things remind me of old things, aspects connect and reduce, dissenting opinions are resolved with greater wisdom… does anyone need to stuff a mattress?

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