Reinventing the wheel: it’s ok… kind of…

Do we really know all the sizes and shades of the wheel? (Credits: Cobalt123 / FlickR)
Do we really know all the sizes and shades of the wheel? (Credits: Cobalt123 / FlickR)

For a long time, one of the mainstay arguments in favour of knowledge management has been that it helps avoid reinventing the wheel: We have to learn from others before us and not waste time going around in circles… to develop yet another circle: the wheel.

Let’s really look into this for a second or two though… and imagine a group of people reinventing the wheel…

What really bothers us here?

  • The fact that they are wasting resources (time, money, capacity) into something that already exists elsewhere – if we were sitting on that budget that would bother us even more?
  • The fact that they are bothering us with something that existed way before they found out and had their epiphany?
  • In both situations, the fact that they are not learning, that they haven’t adopted the good practice of scanning what is available out there before they jumped to action perhaps?

Now, let’s consider also what might be the reasons or motivations for reinventing the wheel:

“I didn’t know about all of this, I just thought it was new” No learning, no looking around, indeed this is daft – but it might also be a great opportunity to learn from the past and to learn how to learn? That is, if we provide that crucial feedback to these people who did not look around. Information gets quickly submerged – we need to unearth the gems buried in the information soils every now and then
“But this bit about it is totally new!” A new insight has come up about the wheel. Perhaps we think we know everything about the wheel, but then again there are these ‘phoenixes’ that keep coming back in conversations, each time in a different avatar. In KM, ‘what is knowledge (management)‘ and ‘Assessing knowledge management‘ are two of these phoenixes. Let’s keep open-minded or we might miss out on crucial insights from these reincarnations of old topics
“I want to give this a try (anyhow)” People might know that they are reinventing the wheel but it is part of their learning process. Much like: a child can be told that the oven is hot and they should not touch it, they will want to experience this by themselves. We all need to reinvent our wheels to go beyond the wheel.
This case can also relate to the quest of immortality… leaving a name behind might justify (in our eyes) going on a beaten track again to find THE way to make this better. That is human behaviour and though it can be irritating, it might again unearth new ideas and insights…
“What we’re doing here is not exactly the same though” Sometimes, at first sight there is no difference, no novelty in an initiative and it really looks like reinventing the wheel, but in fact it is adapting the wheel – and that is totally justified. Innovation emerges when old ideas mix with new opportunities too…
“Our donor asked us to re-invent this wheel” Either extremely daft on the part of the donor, or extremely smart: a great opportunity to think outside the box, erm, aside the wheel?

So all in all, reinventing the wheel is just one of the ways of failing fast and improving quickly – and sometimes it’s actually about adapting, not reinventing the wheel… At any rate it offers a wonderful opportunity to learn and/or to learn how to learn, and that is priceless.

This is why, in a community of practice, with new people coming in continually, there is sometimes a fatigue from older members to hear (again) about the same topics or see the same approaches. But listen carefully savvy folks, a butterfly of an idea there might create a creative tsunami elsewhere… Keep interested and curious, for we don’t know everything about the wheel(s) just yet…

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Published by Ewen Le Borgne

Collaboration and change process optimist motivated by ‘Fun, focus and feedback’. Nearly 20 years of experience in group facilitation and collaboration, learning and Knowledge Management, communication, innovation and change in development cooperation. Be the change you want to see, help others be their own version of the same.

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  1. Hi Ewen,
    Stumbled over this post when I got sucked into Ian Thorpes ( and Nancy Whites ( discussion about re-inventing knowledge management tool-kits. I am with you that sometimes reinvention has a purpose that goes beyond the final product.
    It makes me think of romantic relationships. I am sure that someone old and experienced could write the ultimate guide to happy romantic relationships – and it wouldn’t even be long, because most of the basic principles are rather simple (don’t pick a jerk, be nice to them, insist that they are nice to you too, don’t expect the crazy emotions of the first three months to still be there after 5 years etc…). Then we could just hand these guides out to kids and they wouldn’t have to go through any of the heartbreaking, stupid, even dangerous experiences we might have gone through in our teens and twenties (and thirties?) but could just start using the guidebook and be happy. Right?

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