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A tribute to re-inventors of the wheel

Giving credit to those who change that which no one else thinks to change.

As I was preparing for this blog post, I was planning to whine again. I’ve been picking up speed, you know, complaining about bad testing practices, excessive automation and crumbing quality assurance. Now I was going to shift gears and start to complain about those pesky, good-for-nothing, arrogant re-inventors of the wheel. You know, those guys and gals who spend valuable time solving problems that have already been solved, just because they can do it a little teeny weenie bit better. Duh!

Duh indeed – because after some more thought (and research), I realized that not only was this critique misguided, but also that a fair amount of praise belonged in its place. I mean, where would we be with wheels the shape of a rock rounded by nature? Bumping along with head and neck injuries? Thanks but no thanks!

Before I allow my newfound love of wheel re-inventors come to a cautious bloom, let me back up a bit and try to define the playground for wheel re-invention.

To start, the actual inclination to re-invent the wheel seems to require some specific personality traits, for example:

  1. You’re an expert at thinking outside the box and approaching problems with fresh eyes. You’re not constrained by current lines of thought and you have high regard for your own abilities to top what already exists (after all, you can beat evolution, right?)
  2. You’re (obsessively) passionate about what you do, and willing to give it most of your time. Rounding a wheel can take considerable amount of time to reach the roundness that you envision.
  3. You have a masterful grasp of your field; besides requiring a novel take on technology put together in a novel way, re-inventing the wheel usually requires a gut feeling telling you this problem could be solved in a better way.

The re-inventor can’t usually pull this off alone; he/she needs an accomplice. This is where the organization harboring the re-inventor steps forward to provide the culture and sandbox for magic to happen:

  1. Trusting Passion. As a leader, one can see re-invention coming: feverish eyes, somewhat coherent arguments, an extreme belief in an idea, and the will to prove oneself. Make room for this – give it a chance – and let them shine. Re-inventors will go to extremes to prove they are right, and more often than not, the business can benefit from it as well.
  2. Failure is an option. Even if the wheel isn’t rounder, it’s either equally round or you can just use the stock wheel instead. The time invested will have given both you and the re-inventor valuable insights that can be used the next time around.
  3. Encourage and Foster. Make room for collaborative discussions, nourish creativity and encourage the sharpening of knives. You might even go so far as to allocate 5-10% of your employees’ time to “invention."

Once the re-invention begins, a number of things need to happen to make the most of it:

  1. Learn – take the rounder wheel, put it to use, learn its virtues. If the re-invention failed, make sure this is not lost. Failure in itself is a great driver for learning and improvement.
  2. Share – show the world (patent first if you need to), write blog-posts, present at conferences. Give the re-inventor all the credit he/she deserves – reap the benefits.
  3. Encourage – if the re-invention was successful, this is easy. If it wasn’t, this is important. It’s tough to fail at something you’ve put your heart into. Encourage the re-inventors to learn from failure and try again.

I know what you’re thinking now – talk is cheap. The critique of the above is low-hanging fruit; most organizations can’t really afford this kind of “controlled innovation.” Perhaps they don’t have the corporate culture required – perhaps they have deadlines, releases, budgets, and perfectly round wheels in stock – right?

You’re partially right, but the obvious question to ask back is: “Can your organization afford not to re-invent the wheel?” In today’s high-velocity technology landscape, organizations always have to be prepared to re-invent themselves and kill their darlings, because if they don’t, someone else will.

Our reality is full of examples that in most people’s minds looked like an already-solved problem, but to others presented an enormous opportunity for improvement. Apart from the wheel itself (which has rounded immensely since its inception), Google is a great example. They weren’t the FIRST search engine. When Google launched in 1998, there were already several popular search engines (Lycos, Alta Vista, Fast, Magellan, Yahoo, Ask Jeeves, to name a few). It was a crowded space, so what made them think they could do better? Actually, they reinvented that wheel SO much better that now they are a verb and have moved on to become one of the primary inventors and re-inventors of our age, from autonomous cars to high-tech smart glasses.

Ultimately, this post holds an honest intention to encourage, to give credit to, and to put focus on the passion and drive of wheel re-inventors and their organizations. These are folks who look at something and think “We can do that better,” then go to great lengths to prove it. Thanks to them, we are now cruising down highways in electric-powered convertibles listening to streaming DJ sets from our favorite record label.

What about you? Have you re-invented the wheel? Or failed trying? In either case, your passion is worth recognition - share with us!

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