What’s So Great About the Wheel Anyway?

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So I’m sitting in yet another meeting to discuss some new initiative. iPad in hand, I pretend to take notes, while in reality I’m using my sketch pad app to draw pictures of scary clowns that look remarkably like a nun who taught me in second grade. My mind’s made up. I already know how to proceed. In my opinion, this whole issue could have been solved in an email. Then someone says the words that are almost always said when a new idea is proposed, “Let’s find out what others are doing.”

At which point, I give the clown a hatchet and draw the bloody corpse of the person who said it at the clown’s feet.

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Why do we insist that just because others have done something before us, they are doing it right? And how do we expect to be leaders in our field if all we do is copy what others? Look at any successful innovator, whether it’s a recent success like Google and Apple, or a venerable institution such as Ford and Disney. Did they make it big by asking others what they were doing and copying it? Of course not, they forged their own paths.

As Ken Follett said, “Why do you have to be the same as the others? …Most of them are stupid.”

Whenever I bring up these points in answer to the dreaded, “Let’s find out what others are doing” phrase,I inevitably get the response, “Why should we reinvent the wheel?”

My answer: Because wheels suck.

Sure, in ancient times the wheel was a godsend to anyone who was trying to build a temple or transport their goods to market, but in the millennia since, we’ve witnessed the drawbacks. They are subject to wear and tear. They don’t do well except on smooth surfaces. They lose traction in snow, ice and rain. And when we are done with them, they get piled high in junk yards, causing a huge source of waste on a planet where waste is becoming an increasingly serious issue.

So why hasn’t anyone reinvented the wheel? Why hasn’t anyone perfected hovercrafts and flying cars and transporters and jetpacks? Because, for hundreds and hundreds of years, through chariots and ox carts, Conestogas and Cadillacs, most people have shrugged and said, “We have the wheel. I guess it’s good enough.”

If we said the same about the computer we’d all still be trying to play Angry Birds and Candy Crush by sticking punch cards into machines the size of grand pianos.

We copy others for the same reason we do so much else in life. We do it out of fear. We are afraid that if we create something new, something unique, it might fail. If it fails, we will look bad. We might not get that next promotion. We might even lose our jobs.

I was sitting at a conference once with about 200 other HR professionals. The moderator asked how many of us thought Annual Performance Reviews didn’t work. Everyone raised their hand. Then the moderator asked who still used them. All the hands went up again except for mine.

I’m not going to go into what’s so bad about the annual performance review, and what my organization has done about it. I’ll save that for another time. The reason I point this out is because it’s the perfect example of everyone continuing to do something that isn’t effective simply because they are afraid to go out on a limb and do something different.

Now, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t look to others so that we can determine what worked and what could be improved. I’m not so arrogant as to say I know all the answers (okay, maybe I am, but don’t tell anyone). What I am calling for is for us not to use these ideas as a template to deal with our own issues, but rather, as a launch pad for innovation. After all, Edison didn’t create the light bulb. People had been putting filaments under glass for almost 80 years before he came up with his own version, turning it into something utilitarian, practical, an invention that changed the world.

So the next time someone tells you not to reinvent the wheel, ask them if they’d be willing to change it the next time it goes flat. Better yet, just pick up your iPad and draw a scary clown.

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