Don’t Reinvent The Wheel

There are only two reasons to start a business: either you’ve spotted a technical discontinuity, or you’ve spotted a market discontinuity, and you’re looking to leverage that observation. But the reality is, this line of thinking and and should be extended to cover your entire organisation and operations — and failing to do so is one of the most common causes of lost profit, time, and opportunity that I’ve seen.

Over time, organisations grow organically, and if unguided, in unpredictable ways. Perhaps you started off as a small technology firm. Over time, it became obvious that the rock-star developer that helped found the company is actually a terrible manager of people. So you make him the CTO and hire a VP of Engineering from the outside. Next year, you realise he’s great with technology thought leadership, but terrible in front of customers. So you hire a Chief Science Officer. Now you’re a company of say 50 people, and those 50 include a CTO, CSO, and VP of Engineering. What on earth are you doing?

This sort of unguided evolution happens all the time. It happens in organisational structures; it happens in decisions around physical location; it happens in the development of process and procedures; it happens in the selection of software and tools; and 99 times out of 100, if you haven’t thought about it in advance, you’ll find yourself reinventing the wheel. Don’t.

Of course, there are great reasons to reinvent the wheel. If we hadn’t we’d never have come up treads for farm and construction machinery. But don’t let it happen by accident. Every day, every time you make structural or process decision, look critically at the thing you’re changing and see if you’re trying to do something unique in the world of business — something that will give you sustainable competitive advantage.

Then step back and take a look at the next year. On what trajectory is your business? What things are you going to need to change? Can any of those things be changed in a way that drastically improves your position with your customers, competitors, and shareholders? If not, that’s OK. Not everything can be innovative, but you should at least look. And if you see one or at most two truly unique things you can do that will have that sort of far-reaching impact, then do them. Focus on those.

For everything else, hire a consultant. Seriously. If you know something needs to change, but can’t see a way to change it in a fundamental, earth-shattering, Philosopher’s Stone sort of way, then instead just do it “the normal way”. And if you don’t know what the normal way is, that’s OK too. You can’t be expected to know everything. But there are very few problems that haven’t already been solved hundreds of times in business over hundreds of years. And those solutions have been optimised to be truly, genuinely effective. Hire someone who knows what that optimised, standard way of doing things for your particular problem is. The money you spend on the outside expertise will far out-way the inefficiencies you’ll cause by reinventing the wheel in a non-standard way that doesn’t seek to fundamentally change the paradigm of your business.

OK, enough soap box for today!


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