Please Reinvent the Wheel

How often have you heard someone say something like “No need to reinvent the wheel”?

It’s such a common phrase we don’t even think twice when we hear it. The thing is, a lot of the time there is a huge need to reinvent the wheel.

If we didn’t reinvent the wheel on a regular basis, we’d be driving using cars, bicycles, wheelchairs, shopping trolleys, vacuum cleaners, and an almost infinite number of other things using wheels that look like this:

That wouldn’t be so good.

If we never reinvented the wheel, we wouldn’t have things like the Osmos Orbital Wheel:

In addition to looking really cool, the Orbital Wheel has significant advantages over regular wheels in performance, reliability and safety.

Clearly there are good reasons to reinvent the wheel. How do we know when to do so? Here are some guidelines for wheel reinvention:

  • Innovate in Your Core: you don’t need to be good at everything. In response to this statement “Leading practice companies need to follow leading practice for water management,” one of our research partners once said:

    I disagree with that. Leading practice companies can’t be leading practice in everything. They need to be leading practice in the things that are critical for them, but for everything else they just need to be fit-for-purpose. For example, I don’t want to be leading practice in payroll – there are other people that I can outsource that to – we just need to be fit-for-purpose.

    It’s probably smart to avoid reinventing the wheel in the parts of your operation that just need to be fit-for-purpose. However, in the operational activities that are critical, it can be highly profitable to reinvent the wheel. This is where new business models often originate.

  • Explore related areas: a lot of fruitful wheel reinvention has come from looking at how the wheel might be applied in related areas. That is how we ended up using wheels in all of their various applications. This is what Steven Johnson talked about as “exploring the adjacent possible” in Where Good Ideas Come From: The Natural History of Innovation.

    Saul Kaplan has expanded this idea very well in a number of posts. Here he discusses how to create space for wheel reinvention:

    The trick is to explore and test new models while at the same time continuing to live within current ones. This requires establishing adjacent innovation platforms with the freedom to explore new ways to create and deliver value, especially approaches that are disruptive to the current model. Adjacent innovation platforms must have the freedom to experiment with different rules and financial models. Connected adjacencies require senior leadership sponsorship, support, and protection or they will fail. They must be free to recombine and connect capabilities in new ways unconstrained by the existing organization. Those working in the adjacencies must be empowered to borrow and flexibly deploy capabilities and technologies from inside and outside the organization in novel ways.

  • Find areas of poor performance and innovate there: if you look at where the Osmos Orbital Wheel is being used, it is showing up primarily in racing applications. This is where its performance advantages show up the most. A lot of important wheel reinvention happens at the extremes – when we are trying to meet the needs of the most advanced (or the most reluctant) users.

I’m pretty happy that I’m not using crude wooden wheels everywhere these days. Reinventing the wheel is how we move forward. In many cases, the biggest innovations are not completely new ideas, but rather something that already exists being repurposed. That’s what reinventing the wheel is all about.

So by all means, please reinvent the wheel.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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