In Praise Of Reinventing The Wheel

“We must find ways to reuse this stuff” people say. “We don’t want people reinventing the wheel.” Other people hear this and they nod sagely. That's right, they think, nobody should reinvent the wheel. That would be inefficient.

But what about when there are no wheels?

When there are no wheels you really need someone to invent the wheel. When someone is inventing a wheel at this point you want them to get on and invent it as soon as they bloody well can. Because you need wheels.

Say you find a second person busy inventing a wheel. Maybe you realise you have the opportunity to create An Efficiency. You leap in. “Hey!” you say. “Don’t invent that wheel, there’s someone over there already doing it! Wait a bit and you’ll be able to reuse that one. After all… you don’t want to reinvent the wheel.”

At this the second person will stop inventing their wheel. It’s clear to them that reinventing the wheel would be a bad thing to do and they don’t want to waste their time. In fact, so pleased are they with this new knowledge they start to spread it far and wide. “Did you hear?” they say. “There’s some person inventing a wheel. So you don’t need to!”.

Nobody wants to reinvent the wheel. So people stop inventing wheels all over.

Then someone says “When will this wheel be invented? I really need a wheel by next Sunday”.

Well, Sunday comes and the first person hasn’t invented the wheel yet. That’s a shame because this Sunday guy misses his deadline and is stuck with a wheel-less thing that doesn’t work properly. He thinks about inventing his own wheel, but now he’s further behind and the idea that a wheel might be right on the horizon seems like one way he could claw back some time. He decides to wait for the first person to invent the wheel.

In the meantime as word spread people have been inundating the wheel inventor with feature requests for the wheel. Things to make it more useful for their particular needs. They’ve also been worrying vocally about whether it’ll be good enough, safe enough or durable enough. This makes things quite hard for the inventor because they're trying to juggle their own reasons for inventing a wheel, against these differing demands. Some of the demands even contradict each other!

The pressure to meet all these demands means that the invention of this wheel is taking a long time. There’s a lot hanging on this wheel now and there’s an increasing number of people waiting in increasing states of impatience because they were told there would soon be a wheel.

“Where’s our wheel?” they shout.

The wheel inventor is finding it harder than they originally thought. Deadlines slip. Promises are broken. The pressure grows. Then, one day, they realise that for their particular problem they could get around the need for a wheel by using some existing stuff they already have.

“Sorry everyone” they say. “I've realised I don’t need a wheel anymore. So the invention of the wheel will be put on hold indefinitely”.

“What?!?” says everyone.

Imagine the alternative to this situation. Where each person who needed a wheel invented their own. How might that play out?

For a start you’d end up with a bunch of different wheels. This might be hard if you were trying to plan what material to make your roads out of, or if you were trying to train up a number of wheel-repair people. You might find that this proliferation of different wheels had knock-on effects to a number of other vehicle components. Different axles, different gears etc etc. In short an efficiency nightmare!

What you would have though is a load of people with wheels. Those people would be using those wheels to make their life better. They’d be building upon those wheels, getting around quicker on bicycles, carrying heavy loads with wheelbarrows, powering mills with water wheels. Most importantly though (more important than anything else) people would be learning. Learning about what it’s like to live in a world of wheels. Learning how having wheels changes things. Even learning what problems wheels cause.

Yes, wheels will cause problems as well as solve them. But the sooner people know what those problems are the sooner they can start to solve them too!

The issue here is not that reinventing the wheel is a good thing. The issue is that inventing stuff and standardising stuff for reuse are separate activities. When things don’t exist you need to encourage invention. Once your world is full of wheels that’s when you want to start standardising and encouraging reuse. At that point you’re going to have a lot of knowledge of wheels to draw on. In fact that’s the only time when you have enough knowledge about wheels to even think about creating the ultimate uber-wheel that will work for everyone.

What you really need at that point is a way for all the best practise around wheels to float to the top. It’s not wheel sharing, its knowledge sharing that matters. Then you can cream that wonderful knowledge off and go away (separately) and create the most wonderful multi-purpose wheel the world has ever seen. A wheel so good that anyone needing a wheel from that point on would be stupid not to use it.

From then on even those people who had previously used their own wheels will start to move towards using yours. It won’t happen straight away but your new super-duper wheel will be so good that they’ll start to chose to use it instead of their own.

It's at this point that you'll start to achieve the efficiencies you wanted but this is only possible because of all the learning you’ve done along the way.

The problem that needs to be solved is the knowledge sharing part. Knowledge sharing of this type is hard. It doesn't just mean writing or talking about wheels. It requires analysis, documentation and discussion. It requires cooperation, organisation and discipline. It also requires well informed decision making by leaders who are also experts.

It's a complex problem and doesn't have that immediate easy-to-grasp appeal of the phrase “We shouldn't reinvent the wheel”.

So next time you hear someone opine “We really shouldn't be reinventing the wheel” ask yourself, how many wheels do we currently have? Would a few people reinventing this particular wheel possibly be a good thing?