Office Speak: Yak Shaving

Have you ever started something and regretted it soon after, that’s not a definition of Yak Shaving but is the way I’ve felt writing this post.

There is no law of office speak, no one is the overall governor of the meaning of office speak in different context. For this reason I like to research the meaning before I write these posts to see whether my understanding of the term is widespread. There are many useful places to do this research; if a number of them agree I generally go with that definition.

It’s interesting to research the history of office speak to see how long it’s been around and how many iterations it’s been through.

I think I’ve worked out the history of Yak Shaving but it’s not absolutely straightforward and neither is the explanation of that meaning.

In Wiktionary there are two definitions:

1. Any apparently useless activity which, by allowing you to overcome intermediate difficulties, allows you to solve a larger problem.
2. A less useful activity done consciously or unconsciously to procrastinate about a larger but more useful task.

If you look into the discussion for these two definitions a number of people have commented that the second definition isn’t correct. I’m happy with that, because definition two doesn’t align to my understanding either. The first definition fits my understanding, so I’ll stick with that.

The history of Yak Shaving with this meaning appears to come from MIT where a student, Carlin Vieri, is credited with inventing it:

“Yak shaving.” Our very own Carlin Vieri invented the term, and yet it has not caught on within the lab. This is a shame, because it describes all too well what I find myself doing all too often.

You see, yak shaving is what you are doing when you’re doing some stupid, fiddly little task that bears no obvious relationship to what you’re supposed to be working on, but yet a chain of twelve causal relations links what you’re doing to the original meta-task.

There’s a less clarity on where Carlin Vieri got the term from, but it’s probably from a Ren & Stimpy episode.

Yak Shaving one of those terms that’s best described by an example:

//s.imgur.com/min/embed.jsThe other day I noticed that one of the lights in the bathroom wasn’t working. I’d recently changed the light-bulb so suspected that there may be a wiring problem. To investigate I needed to get into the loft.

To get into the loft I needed to get the step-ladders that were in the garage.

We’d recently had a number of large deliveries. The boxes from these deliveries were stacked in front of the step-ladders. To get access to the step-ladders I put the boxes in the car and took them to the nearest recycling centre.

On my way to the recycling centre I noticed that I was low on fuel so I went to the garage for some petrol.

As payment for the fuel I withdrew some money from the ATM at the garage.

This is the nature of Yak Shaving – my goal was to fix a light, but I ended up doing all sorts of necessary apparently useless things before I could complete the task. In business we spend much of our time Yak Shaving:

  • Claiming expenses is Yak Shaving
  • Approval processes are Yak Shaving
  • Many, many meetings are Yak Shaving

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