When naming your company or product, beware of bikeshedding and yak shaving

Yak Shaving

Imagine a software company that makes a very sophisticated and complex software product. The marketing department at the company knows very well what their product does, but probably has scant idea how it does what it does — that knowledge is likely confined to the engineering department. The employees in the marketing department would probably never dream of telling the engineers how to program the company’s software (and imagine howls of derision if they did!), and for the most part, the engineers don’t meddle in the company’s marketing business. That, however, can change quickly when a company decides to rename itself, at which point, seemingly everybody from the CEO to the night-watchman’s second cousin will want to weigh-in, haggle, argue, condemn and second-guess the company naming process.

There’s actually a term for this phenomena: bikeshedding, derived from the wonderfully named Parkinson’s Law of Triviality:

Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, also known as bikeshedding or the bicycle-shed example, is C. Northcote Parkinson’s 1957 argument that organizations give disproportionate weight to trivial issues. Parkinson demonstrated this by contrasting the triviality of the cost of building a bike shed in contrast to an atomic reactor. The law has been applied to software development and other activities, and is known as the “the ‘colour of the bike shed’ effect.”

…Parkinson dramatizes his law of triviality with a committee’s deliberations on an “atomic reactor,” contrasting it to deliberation on a bicycle shed. As he put it, “The time spent on any item of the agenda will be in inverse proportion to the sum involved.” A reactor is used because it is so vastly expensive and complicated that an average person cannot understand it, so one assumes that those that work on it understand it. On the other hand, everyone can visualize a bicycle shed, so planning one can result in endless discussions because everyone involved wants to add a touch and show personal contribution.

In our naming example, writing software is like building a nuclear reactor, while re-naming the company is seen as merely building a bike shed: everyone can understand it, so everyone has an opinion. Poul-Henning Kamp, in a 1999 email posted on Bikeshed.com, further elaborates on Parkinson’s Law of Triviality, and how ego can infiltrate and dominate simple matters like bike shed design:

Parkinson explains that this is because an atomic plant is so vast, so expensive and so complicated that people cannot grasp it, and rather than try, they fall back on the assumption that somebody else checked all the details before it got this far. Richard P. Feynmann gives a couple of interesting, and very much to the point, examples relating to Los Alamos in his books.

A bike shed on the other hand. Anyone can build one of those over a weekend, and still have time to watch the game on TV. So no matter how well prepared, no matter how reasonable you are with your proposal, somebody will seize the chance to show that he is doing his job, that he is paying attention, that he is *here*.

In Denmark we call it “setting your fingerprint”. It is about personal pride and prestige, it is about being able to point somewhere and say “There! *I* did that.” It is a strong trait in politicians, but present in most people given the chance.  Just think about footsteps in wet cement.

The problem, of course, is that naming a company or product is not quite so simple as designing a bike shed, even if many people not directly involved in the process assume that it is, and want to “set their fingerprints” on the process. It is therefore vitally important to keep naming committees as small as possible in order to keep focused on the very important task at hand, rather than be distracted by hours of time-consuming yak shaving.

Yak shaving? Yes, yak shaving, an idiomatic expression meaning, “The actually useless activity you do that appears important when you are consciously or unconsciously procrastinating about a larger problem.” Also known by the variant, “to forget, when up to one’s neck in alligators, that the mission is to drain the swamp.”

The etymology of yak shaving is uncertain. “The term is already used in the 1950 Billy Wilder film Sunset Boulevard by the main character Joe Gillis to describe people at a new year’s party he was going to attend by saying ‘A bunch of kids that didn’t give a hoop just as long as they had a yak to shave.'” Those must have been some bored kids. “More modern use of the term came up in a 1991 Ren & Stimpy cartoon citing ‘Yak Shaving Day,’ a Christmas-like Holiday where participants hang diapers instead of stockings, stuff rubber boots with cole slaw, and watch for the shaven yak to float by in his canoe.” Which is probably exactly what many engineers imagine the marketing department spends most of its time doing.

The point — and there really is one in all this yak shaving and bikeshedding, yakshedding and bike shaving — is to never lose sight of the big picture of what a powerful name can do for your brand, never allow the minutiae of yak shaving and endless bikeshedding meetings to derail your process. And to learn how to differentiate between the harmful flavor of yak shaving, noted above, and the helpful variety: “Any apparently useless activity which, by allowing you to overcome intermediate difficulties, allows you to solve a larger problem: I was doing a bit of yak shaving this morning, and it looks like it might have paid off.

Or, I was doing a bit of yak shaving this morning, and it paid off with a new blog post. But now I have to get back to the difficult task at hand: designing nuclear powered bike sheds.

See also Joi Ito’s and Seth Godin’s interpretations of yak shaving. The yak shaving concept seems to have endless subtle definitions, making even the act of defining it an exercise in yak shaving.

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