This came up when a developer brought in these planning poker cards, one of which is Yak Shaving.

There are various articles on google/wikitionary which basically say:

Yak shaving is programming lingo for the seemingly endless series of small tasks that have to be completed before the next step in a project can move forward.

I can't tell if this is used in a positive or negative way though, or if you were using planning poker cards, what this would mean.

It could mean that people believe a particular task to be Yak Shaving, in which case they think it's an endless series of tasks and thus ultimately pointless (since endless means they'll never finish). This definition gives it a negative connotation.

The definition given by the people that make those cards is that a risky task could cascade into lots of small and less important subtasks, and may need to be better defined which doesn't make much sense, as I would expect that to be taken into account when assigning points, and if it's too many points then it's time to break it down.

Or it could mean that it's a necessary step, but rather than assign it points it should just be a task that runs in the background, whenever there is downtime. For example, we need to tidy up and redecorate the new office we moved into, or we need to spend some time reading all the employee handbooks and filling in a bunch of forms. These tasks are necessary in the long run but can be performed concurrently. This is a positive but not urgent connotation because the project can move forward without it.

It could also mean the same as above, but it's a task that is required for the project to move forward. I am not sure why you wouldn't give it a point value, but perhaps it is for example harassing a supplier that is late on delivering a spec that will be needed in a few weeks - the project cannot move forward without it but it's something that takes time here and there to fire off an e-mail, make a phone call etc. This is a positive connotation of the term as well.

I'll restate the questions since it's been flagged for closing as too broad:

  • I have heard this phrase at almost every job I have worked at. How it is this term used in general conversation?
  • Is it positive or negative when used to describe a task?
  • What is an example of Yak Shaving?
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    en.wiktionary.org/wiki/yak_shaving I suggest you look up that Ren & Stimpy episode and watch it. It may clear up everything. I understand it is work of which it is not obvious how it could help solving your problem but then it might after all. Note a yak is an animal with a lot of hair. – Martin Maat Mar 5 '19 at 15:36
  • My introduction to the term, many years ago: seths.blog/2005/03/dont_shave_that – Eric King Mar 5 '19 at 15:37

Yak shaving describes doing some seemingly useless task that is necessary to complete another task, which is necessary to complete other tasks, which eventually will allow you to complete your initial goal.

I think the term can either be positive or negative:

  • It is positive (or neutral) when it describes a series of small tasks necessary in order to accomplish a larger goal. For example, "I spent most of the day yak shaving, but I finally finished my project".

  • It is negative when used to describe how you let distractions get in the way of accomplishing a goal. For example, "I intended to finish that project today, but ended up spending the day yak shaving".

Here is an example, paraphrased from Don’t Shave That Yak!:

You start with the desire to wax your car.

To wax your car, you need a water hose. Only, your water hose is busted so you need to go down to the hardware store to get a new hose.

To get to the hardware store, you have to drive across a bridge. The bridge requires a pass or ticket. You can't find your pass, but you know your neighbor has one.

However, your neighbor won't lend you his pass until you return a pillow that you borrowed. The reason you haven't returned it is because the pillow is missing some stuffing.

The pillow was originally stuffed with yak hair. In order to re-stuff the pillow you need to get some new yak hair.

And that's how you end up shaving a yak, when all you really wanted to do was wax your car.


I remember when Scrum first came out everyone would wheel out the chicken and pigs nomenclature (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Chicken_and_the_Pig)

No one understood what the hell it was supposed to mean and why it applied to dev team (pigs) vs Business (chickens)

Then we had "Backlog Grooming" A US term which did not go down well in the UK.

"Bikeshedding" is another phrase that makes no sense unless someone has explained it.

We have to remember that there is a meta industry around IT and development which is focused on selling management techniques and architectural ideas.

This industry is constantly spawning new terms and funny anecdotes which it uses to try and explain why their particular idea is super cool.

But the meaning of the phrase can be lost when it moves outside of that original 'bought in' audience.

I doubt if "Yak Shaving" means the same thing over more than two teams, let alone two companies or two countries. Define what you mean by the card within the team and write it on the back.

  • While I think this answer has interesting information, it doesn't seem to answer the question that was actually asked. – Bryan Oakley Mar 7 '19 at 23:10
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    the answer is : It's a ren and stimpy joke that someone read meaning into. It has no consensus meaning – Ewan Mar 7 '19 at 23:18
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    I wish I could upvote this 100 times, especially for the term meta-industry. A two-day SCRUM-course costs at least 1000 $ in my city, and people willing to work in the industry better attend such a course and get a certification. By the way: the certification is only valid for two years, after which you have to pay to have it prolonged. – Giorgio Mar 9 '19 at 7:50

My understanding of the term , specifically as it relates to the card in planning poker, is that it's a warning that we're concentrating a lot of effort on a task that we don't really want to do, but we need to do it in order to do the task we really want to do.

It's an invitation to consider if there is a better way to get your original intended task done rather than spend a lot of effort "shaving the yak".

  • Could you elaborate with an example that covers those points? – NibblyPig Mar 5 '19 at 15:42
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    Maybe something like we need a place to deploy our app, so we make a task to procure a new machine. Then we make a task to ask for funding. Then we make a task to <next thing> and on down the line. Then when discussing the 4th task down that line somebody tosses out yak shaving - "Have we considered just spinning up a VM?" – Eric King Mar 5 '19 at 15:45
  • Or the equivalent scenario with pieces of code. – Eric King Mar 5 '19 at 15:46
  • Ah I see, thanks. So in a planning session, after discussing all the things that are required, you might be inclined to say this is yak shaving, i.e. we will waste our time doing all these tiny tasks that will take forever to do when there has to be an easier way? – NibblyPig Mar 5 '19 at 16:04
  • @SLC Yes, that's how I see it. Or, at least it is an opportunity to consider if there can be a better way. It may not always be possible to avoid shaving that yak. – Eric King Mar 5 '19 at 20:23

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