Thursday, March 7

Reinventing The Wheel: How To Think Forward

The expression is so common in communication, software development and some engineering segments that many people recognize it as cliche. And yet, there are those who still love to lean on it.

"Let's not reinvent the wheel."

The concept behind it feels right. The idiomatic metaphor warns people away from duplicating a basic method that has already been created and optimized by others. Thus, a wheel is a wheel is a wheel.

But is a wheel just a wheel? If you take some time to think about it, the real brilliance wasn't the wheel in 3,500 B.C. It was the fixed axle. Right on. It didn't take any talent to conceive the rolling cylinder, which has been reinvented a few thousand times to accommodate different applications. (One of my ancestors, in fact, very literally reinvented the wheel with the introduction of pneumatic tires.)

Anyway, the real scientific advancement was figuring out how to connect a stable stationary platform to the cylinder. Without the axle, the wheel is mostly useless. But I'm not suggesting we turn a more accurate phrase by saying "let's not reinvent the fixed axle." After all, even an axle can be reinvented.

"Let's reinvent everything."

The truth is that had automobile manufacturers took a bigger interest in hovercraft technology, wheels might feel as passé as cassette tapes today (except for specific applications). But automobile manufacturers didn't do it, begging the question: what has not reinventing land transportation cost us?

And this is something that business executives and communicators might start asking themselves more often. What is the cost of not reinventing something? And, if not cost, how about missed opportunities?

When you look at some of the most successful companies in history, almost all of them were in the reinvention business. Steve Jobs reinvented computers and phones. Henry Ford reinvented car manufacturing. Edwin Land reinvented photography. And the list continues, with history tending to remember those who invented or reinvented something over those who borrow against invention.

The same holds true for best practices too. In communication (and social media in particular), there are far too few developing best practices and far too many searching for them. In some cases, it has led to what some people call a follow the leader mentality in social media and communication. I'm not as generous. I call it follow the follower, which is what spawns marketing myths and strands communicators anytime a social network reminds them that best practices are short term.

Best practices are inspiration points, not shortcuts. 

The best communication plans for any organization rely on three concepts: temporal communication, adaptable contrasts, and best practice analysis for process adoption. The latter places a greater emphasis on evaluating best practices for possible adoption, but only after they are reinvented to fit.

It's somewhere in between the Not Invented Here (NIH) culture of some organizations and Not Anything New (NAN) culture of some organizations, with NIH assuming everything ought to be invented and NAN assuming everything that exists today is good enough. The people who subscribe to NIH frequently fool themselves into believing their ideas are new at great cost. And the people who subscribe to NAN were likely trying to find faster horses instead of building automobiles in the 1900s.

But what organizations really need are people who can research all the best practices and either reinvent them to fit or discover what no one else has done before. In the process, it usually results in something unique in its construction or an innovation that can change everything. In many cases, this is how some of the best and brightest companies started. And the same can be said for the best campaigns too.
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