Why reinventing the wheel is not only good … but absolutely essential

Over an enjoyable “catch up” dinner recently, an old and trusted friend sought my advice on how to persuade his team and organisation to adopt a new idea that he had for being more profitable. As I listened attentively to his tale of what he saw as “unreasonable” and “illogical” resistance to his change efforts, I consciously counted the number of times he said the phrase “I have no intention of re-inventing the wheel” as if by way of justifying his actions and also evidence of his colleagues’ unreasonableness. After the 4th repetition, I stopped him and asked “Why don’t you want to reinvent the wheel? What is so wrong about reinventing the wheel anyway?

He gently placed his cutlery on his plate and in between exaggerated swigs of wine, looked at me slowly and deliberately – in a manner which suggested that maybe I was finally losing my senses.

Undeterred (it takes more than a “look” to make me miss a beat!), I quoted Everett M. Rogers, the guru on the introduction of new ideas, that reinvention is “the degree to which an innovation is changed or modified by a user in the process of its adoption and implementation[1] and proceeded to give him a few quick fire examples of everyday reinventions of original ideas and products, from a cross section of genres.

From the world of fashion: Denim Jeans 

The modern day pair of jeans is a staple in virtually everyone’s wardrobe, regardless of demographics, culture and class. Yet denim jeans were first designed as work wear for labourers on the farms and mines of America’s Western states in the late 19th Century. Today, we have every cut of jeans imagine-able for every occasion and with a wide range of price tags. Indeed some jeans are such a high fashion item that they would be perceived as completely inappropriate for manual labour.

From the world of Music: Sampling and Covers 

Sampling is the act of taking a portion, or sample of one sound recording and reusing it in a different song (think Vanilla Ice’s bass line in his 1990 hip hop song, “Ice Ice Baby which sampled from Queen and David Bowie’s “Under Pressure”), whilst a cover song is a new recording of a previously recorded song by someone other than the original artist. The dance music genre and the celebrity DJs in the period 2000 – 2010 would not have survived without the art of sampling whilst modern day TV adverts, new artists and the entire music talent / reality shows/ competitions (X-Factor; The Idol franchises, The Voice et al) will be bereft without covers.

From the world of Film – we have summer block busters 

Can anyone remember the last time an original film title was released in the quiet summer months that didn’t have a number suffix? Indeed it would appear that the suffices 1,2,3, 4 and even 5 (think “Transformers 5”) seem to have been perfectly created for the sole purpose of reinventing and re-releasing old (and not always improved) story lines.


At its most basic level, it can be argued that most of the current wave of technology exist to save us even more time – so much so that we could be in danger of making some of our faculties redundant. My children continue to be astounded at their parents’ ability to do perceived “complicated” mental arithmetic (e.g. 25×11 = 275!) within seconds sans calculator and we parents continue to be astounded at their ability to reinvent the English language thanks to texting. Whilst we are on this subject, the various releases of intelligent phones, intelligent cars and intelligent computers are brilliant – but are they not merely reinventions of old products originally created to help us communicate efficiently in businesses (in the case of the phone); move from A to B (in the case of the car); and store, manage and retrieve information (in the case of the computer)?

As can be seen from above, reinvention is everywhere. It happens for a variety of reasons including:

  1. To customise an original idea/ product/ process to the specific needs of the culture and behaviours of the people expected to adopt and use the idea/ product / process.
  2. To increase the rate of acceptance and adoption of the idea – especially once No1 above happens. One size, after all, doesn’t fit all.
  3. To increase the degree of sustainability and stickiness of the new idea / product/ process and ensure that it is not just relegated to a dusty cupboard soon after being implemented.

So why does reinvention get a bad name? Why do we continue to re-hash the old belief that reinventing the wheel is bad? And why did my friend think that I was losing my marbles by daring to suggest otherwise?

The answer, according to Everett M. Rogers, lies in perception. It depends on the view point of the people looking at the reinvention.

If the reinvention is perceived by the people expected to use the reinvention as:

  1. Not having a relative advantage or being an improvement (e.g. in terms of economic advantage or social prestige , or ease of use etc.) over the status quo that it replaces; or
  2. Not being compatible or consistent with the existing values, experiences and existing and future needs of the expected adopters; or
  3. Not having results which can easily be observed and communicated to other people….

then it will be seen as a waste of time and will not be adopted. This is when it is most definitely silly to waste energies reinventing the wheel. However, as we have seen time and time again, the wheel has come a long way from the stone to the wooden cogs to the super dynamic, super sleek and super safe inventions that we have today. In other words, the wheel has indeed been reinvented many times because there has been a necessity to do so.

If necessity is the mother of invention, then reinvention is the condition for adopting & using said invention. So next time someone accuses your change effort of being a reinvention of an old wheel, assess how you can make this perception work to your advantage, after all, “imitation, is the sincerest form of flattery”.




[1] Chap 5 – Diffusion of Innovations. 5th Edition. Everett M. Rogers

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