Aug 2008

Reinventing the wheel can be good

Whoever popularised the phrase “do not reinvent the wheel” obviously did not work in the tyre / tire industry, nor raced professionally. In these cases, “reinventing the wheel” is a key ingredient to success. And yet, the phrase is so ingrained in everyday corporate language, that people say it without thinking it through.

Many would argue that it is just semantics. In the case of the tyre / tire or auto industry, that is product improvement, and the “wheel” is the product, so of course it needs to be “reinvented”. Maybe, but that is not the point. As is typical with other idiomatic metaphor, the point is not in the literal, but in the implied. The need for “reinvention” is valid.

To differentiate between a valid “reinvention”, metaphorically, versus an unnecessary one, one needs to analyse the circumstance: is it ignorant or is it intentional? When “reinvention” is conducted without prior understanding that “the wheel” already exists, and thus “reinvention” is incorrectly assumed to be needed, then it is ignorant “reinvention”. On the other hand, when there is a clear end in mind and “reinvention” is decided as a means to the end, then it is intentional reinvention.

When department X needs to track some data, and department Y of the same company already has a good-enough spreadsheet to do the job, is it known to department X that the spreadsheet can be re-used? Or does department X thinks, unknowingly, that they need to create the spreadsheet?

When a disease already has a drug that treats it, does it make business sense to develop another drug to treat the same disease? If the new drug has less side effects while being at least as effective, then yes. Even between groups or departments in the same company, if there is a clear need for a better “wheel”, then yes, please “reinvent” it.

The pitfall to this, clearly, is the “not invented here” syndrome. And to minimise this, the keyword is “prior understanding”. Is it properly understood that “the wheel” truly does not exist? And if it exists, is it properly understood that it is not good enough? If “the wheel” exists and is good enough, then “reinventing” it is a waste of time and resources. Whereas not knowing the answer is simply ignorant.

So, the next time someone utters he or she does not want to “reinvent the wheel”, take a moment to reflect and evaluate the circumstance. Is it because the existing “wheel” is properly understood to be good enough, or is it because of ignorance or, God forbids, laziness?

#learningorg #obxerve