Why it’s Okay to Reinvent the Wheel

In project contexts we often hear people complaining that a team is wasting time reinventing the wheel, that they shouldn’t be solving something that’s already been solved, that they should instead focus on working faster or being more innovative.

This is particularly apparent when we look across at how other fields like filmmaking and architecture have managed similar obstacles. We see the ways they’ve  solved comparable problems, and so we borrow and adapt their solutions.

But I think we’re missing some fundamental lessons along the way. We should be letting ourselves ‘reinvent the wheel’. Here are six reasons why.

There is more than one type of ‘wheel’

Each person in our teams has a different idea of what a ‘wheel’ is. Management especially. We need to re-invent the wheel together to align our thinking and create something fit for purpose.

‘Wheels’ vary in complexity

If we have experience with simple wheels, we don’t necessarily understand the difficulties involved in designing complex wheels. We may not know which of our skills and experiences can easily transfer.

Context matters

Inventing a wheel that can move smoothly across a hospital floor is not the same as inventing a wheel that can move over rocky ground. Something we learn in one context may transfer to another, but we don’t know until we explore the context in more depth by re-inventing it.

People learn by doing (and failing)

People learn best by doing, not by being told what to do. We also we learn more effectively when we fail than when wesucceed. When we try and fail we can interrogate what went wrong to learn and what to do differently next time. When we try and succeed we still learn good things but we might not understand what led to success.

Teams learn by doing together

If one person on our team is an expert wheel inventor, the rest of our team still need to be involved in the invention process. Sure, we’ll likely end up exactly where the expert said we would, but learning this together is more important than the ‘wheel’ we create.

Every ‘wheel’ is different

Wheels ain’t wheels. We are never reinventing the wheel. We are inventing this wheel.

Donna Spencer

Donna Spencer

Donna is an information architect and user experience designer (and a conference organiser). She loves working on complex problems, being involved in everything from the big picture to tiny details. She’s a regular conference speaker; and has written three books – on card sorting, web writing, and information architecture

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