I'm looking for something to call a complicated situation where a task is delayed due to unexpected work on other things required for work on it.

A concise thing to say as an answer to "how's the progress on A", that explains why it wasn't even started, without going on a long, technical-term-peppered rant going something like "Work on A needs B, which isn't available atm, but we thought we could adapt a C with just a tweak, but C1 keeps giving a resource state error and it turns out C2's hardware doesn't support that(...) so now we're helping Z get their job done faster so they can release Y which X need for W if they are to lend us V which is the only available(...)"

Something like "getting sidetracked", but with a meaning more like "searching for a way past the blockade on the main track, and so far only running into more blockades despite reasonable expectations otherwise".
Not losing sight of the goal but failing to approach it, often going even further away in hope of finding a route.

  • That actually sounds very much like getting sidetracked.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Feb 7, 2018 at 14:49
  • @Lawrence Perhaps, but most uses of "sidetracked" I've seen concerned allowing oneself to become distracted, absorbed by activities not crucial to the main task. Procrastinate.
    – kaay
    Commented Feb 7, 2018 at 16:55
  • Although it's not procrastination, what you've described in your question does sound like "allowing oneself to become distracted, absorbed by activities not crucial to the main task". Compare this with your question's "Not losing sight of the goal but failing to approach it, often going even further away in hope of finding a route". ... Thinking about this some more, it seems that your point of difference is that you want the sense of trying to approach the task.
    – Lawrence
    Commented Feb 8, 2018 at 0:55

2 Answers 2


I suggest the term 'project dependencies' or 'dependencies' for those tasks that 'cause you to get side-tracked'. Also 'critical task' is a term you can use.

The underlying activities in a project, on which other, and often more important activities or 'deliverables' - things that must be delivered or completed in the project - depend - are known as 'dependencies' or 'project dependencies'.

This is a project management term - a term from the world of 'project management' a profession in which project managers endeavour to keep projects on track and to generate successful, timely outcomes in accordance with 'the project plan' or the stated project goals.

As projects are commonly conducted in business, the term 'dependency' or 'project dependency' or 'critical task' will often be used in business meetings about projects, including software development projects, and other projects.

Another name for a key 'project dependency' is a 'critical task' - a task on which many others, - depend. And on which, the success of the project also depends - which is why these are deemed 'critical'. Meaning 'critically important' - to the success of a project.

A 'critical task' may be seemingly minor - but can have huge knock-on implications, if not achieved. For example if a logo design is incomplete, an entire marketing campaign might falter.

So to come back to your question - you can talk about 'underlying project dependencies' or 'unexpected project dependencies' or 'suddenly uncovered project dependencies' or 'suddenly occurring project dependencies' to cover the 'tip of the iceberg' feeling that is causing your delays.

Or even 'emergent' or 'emergency' project dependencies, or 'newly emergent critical tasks'.

Here is a link explaining dependencies:


Successful project management often involves uncovering the 'underlying project dependencies' which may be defined as 'that, without which, the project cannot continue or progress' - as early as possible in the project - so that they may be addressed - so that they do not, in fact, get in the way of progress - on indeed, stop the project altogether.

The project manager's task is often, in fact, to weasel out these hidden rascals - and find ways to deal with them.

Most project management software has features to 'identify dependencies' and allow them to be seen - which is designed to allow the effect of them slipping on other areas - to be seen - and then, hopefully - resolved.

The dependencies, when they slip, can have dramatic knock-on effects on other activities, where a delay in one area creates a kind of negative 'domino effect' on the whole project.

Various project management methodologies exist to assist with the whole problem you describe, including 'Agile' and 'Scrum' - here is a link to an article summarising some of the available methodologies that may be helpful:


Lastly, another way of describing the whole problem you describe is 'failure to apply project management principles' or 'unsuccessful project management' or 'a lack of project management'.

A project manager in a tricky situation such as yours, might say to management 'my dependencies are slipping' or 'a number of previously unidentified critical tasks have come up which are impacting the project'.

  • Thank you; while "yak shaving" is a good idiom, your answer offers terms that don't need to be looked up
    – kaay
    Commented Feb 7, 2018 at 17:09
  • 😊Ok! Thanks. Yak shaving! If you want a less formal term like that, it could be 'painting the Forth Bridge' - a bridge so long, that by the time you finish painting it - it's time to go back and start painting it again, from the beginning! A 'never ending task'...
    – Jelila
    Commented Feb 7, 2018 at 17:36

it sounds like you're talking about Yak Shaving

(idiomatic) Any apparently useless activity which, by allowing you to overcome intermediate difficulties, allows you to solve a larger problem.

What this definition doesn't obviously imply is that Yak Shaving is a potentially endless process, with the person doing the "shaving" getting further and further away from completing the original goal. I think this is the process you describe.

  • Sounds like exactly what I had in mind :) Too bad the second possible meaning practically makes it a synonym for "getting sidetracked". Still, unlike that one, from what I've seen, the first usage is more common. Thanks!
    – kaay
    Commented Feb 7, 2018 at 17:01
  • 1
    In my experience, the second definition is very rarely used - it always means a "sequence of diverting tasks, each dependent on one or more others" Commented Feb 7, 2018 at 17:04

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