Thursday, December 17, 2009

Why reinvent the wheel?

Traders are often exhorted not to reinvent the wheel. That is, don’t waste your time doing something that has already been done by other people when you could be doing something more worthwhile. Like making money using the wheels invented earlier.

Fran Briggs, a peak performance coach, asked a group of elementary school students why we should reinvent the wheel, more precisely why they would reinvent the wheels on their bicycles. Among the more imaginative answers--you can’t see inside, they slow down when on grass, and they don’t glow in the dark. I would give a gold star to the second answer.

The wheel was a brilliant solution to a set of local problems. For instance, round trumps other alternatives on surfaces that are, for lack of a more scientific description, pretty hard. Round isn’t a great solution in deep snow, in sand, in the water (despite the Mississippi steamboats), or in the air. The wheel doesn’t solve all transportation problems.

So the first problem is that the wheel isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. It has its limitations. It doesn’t work under all conditions and it’s not adaptive.

Even where the wheel should work it needs a lot of re-engineering. Racing tires, for example, are a very distant relative of the old stone wheel. And racing tires are useless for driving through snow; tread “localizes” the tire.

In brief, innovators have two tasks. First, they have to keep reinventing the wheel to make it better at the tasks for which it was designed. Second, they have to realize the limitations of the wheel and come up with alternatives when the environment changes.

It’s all too easy to get lulled into a false complacency. We are told that we can be highly successful simply by applying the tools that others have created. Perhaps. But would you want to enter the Indy 500 with stone tires? Would you want to enter the Iditarod with a sled equipped with racing tires?

The folks with the latest and greatest don’t always win, but it’s hard to compete with antediluvian or irrelevant models. Sometimes the best use of one’s time is reinventing the wheel.

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