Help! A former colleague got all of us using the expression "x is long pole in the tent" to mean:

  • x is the person or issue that's preventing forward progress on a project
  • x is the person or issue that will take up the most time on a project

Besides not being a familiar idiom for some, the expression has sexual overtones. What would be a better alternative?

  • 2
    The "long tent pole" is what is holding up the show.
    – user93600
    Oct 6 '14 at 15:39
  • I dont think just using the work pole, has sexual overtones. I don't believe the saying is meant to be sexual in any way.
    – user102902
    Dec 23 '14 at 0:32
  • 1
    The saying sounds extremely sexual to anyone not familiar with it as a saying because a) pole is a slang term for a penis, and b) pitching a tent is a slang term for having an erection while clothed, by indirectly comparing the trousers worn to a tent and the penis to a tent pole. Dec 23 '14 at 0:36
  • 1
    If you try even modestly hard (oops!) anything can a sexual reference.
    – Oldcat
    Dec 23 '14 at 0:39
  • 1
    I suggest using "average size pole" to be more inclusive.
    – gnarbarian
    Mar 23 '16 at 4:21

You could say that a person or issue is a bottleneck in the project.


Merriam Webster defines the phrase as: "The most important issue or problem that prevents or slows progress, especially on a project. The factor that must be addressed before all others or that has the most far-reaching effects." William Safire wrote a column about the phrase and illustrated how it has two overlapping meanings. He defined one as “the central determinant, the pole bearing the most weight of the tent structure.” The second meaning--brought about by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney--is “the source of delay, in the sense of holding everything else up.”

The most blunt way of conveying the same meaning is to say "x is the biggest problem" or "x is the major issue." But if you wanted to be less direct you could say "x is the bottleneck (or choke point)" or "x is on the critical path (or road to completion)."


X is on the project's critical path


At the software companies where I have worked, we leave off the mention of a "tent" and simply talk about certain tasks or projects being "the long pole". It always refers to the project which will take the most amount of time, or rather will extend the longest into the future before completion. I thought this was a reference to how such projects appear on the overall GANTT chart of a software release plan - a project which can only be done serially appears as a single long "pole" on such a chart, extending into the future. But in light of the information presented here, it seems likely the phrase's origin is actually as a corruption of an original tentpole-based phrase.

But back to the OP question: what other phrase or term could be used to describe a person or issue which is taking the most time on a project or preventing progress on a project?

It's imprecise and has an unwelcome connotation, but the phrase elephant in the room would likely work in most cases. It has a connotation of there being a reluctance for people to speak of it, but in all other ways it seems appropriate: it is an issue (or person) that must be dealt with in order to move forward, or it is something that is taking up the most space in the room and therefore must be treated as a priority.

Specifically for issues which are preventing progress, a common term in software development is to call them blocking issues, for the obvious reason. This term would not generally be used for issues which merely are taking a long time, and would also generally not be used for people. You wouldn't call a derelict developer a "blocking engineer", though you might call their continued contributions a blocking issue!

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.