Why do we Reinvent the Wheel – The #UKGC15 write-up

I pitched a session at UKGC15 to try to explore the issue of why some innovation happens from scratch rather than being a case of adopting and adapting viable solutions developed elsewhere.

I was motivated to do this from my experience as a member of the Service Transformation Challenge Panel where we saw quite a lot of reinvention going on – quite frustratingly sometimes, and we mentioned this in the #ChallengePanel report.  We recommended the setting up of a “What Works Centre” for Transformation, to provide accessible, and evidence-based insight that could accelerate change.

So I pitched a session and a good number of people turned up – about 25-30.  My cunning plan was to brainstorm the things that tend to lead to wheel reinvention, then brainstorm the things that contributed to adapting and adopting, then think about how we could mitigate the reinvention forces, and strengthen the adaptation forces.  In the end we spent almost all of the 45 minutes coming up with examples of reinvention and understanding their underlying causes.

Rather than just copy out the flipcharts I’m going to an impose an order on the points that is my subjective judgement.  I am going to list reasons for wheel reinvention that are potentially “good” reasons and then reasons which are “bad” reasons, as would be judged by an informed citizen concerned about how public money was being spent (the context of UK GovCamp being about public money). My own comments about these things are in italic. I have combined similar points.

Good Reasons to Start from Scratch

Creating something from new ensures that you understand the underlying principles of why the solution works.  This came up in the context of writing code from scratch but I think has some relevance more generally.  If you are slavishly copying something someone else has done it may work for a while but if some of the fundamental underpinnings change and you don’t understand them, then you may not realise it is time to change.

You can bring people along with you, as they co-develop and co-own the solution.  I find this very persuasive.  It suggests to me that where an organisation is going for Adapt and Adopt the users etc need to still be involved in problem specification and finding the solution.

Monocultures are dangerous.  Competition drives further reinvention.  If everyone is doing something exactly the same way then flaws can bring the whole system down.  Moreover if (say) there are a handful of vendors developing solutions then competition between them results in new relevant innovation and continuous improvement.

Search costs exceed cost of creation from scratch.  If the thing you have to do is relatively straightforward, but it will be difficult to find a standardised solution, or if you fear there is a significant likelihood that search time will be wasted because a solution may not exist, then it could be rational to invent.

Fear of “over-selling”.  People with good ideas tend to be enthusiastic about them and there’s a human instinct to assume that they have cracked it  and that everyone can achieve the same results as them, despite the fact that some of the underlying circumstances (eg senior buy-in) may be different.  People (literally) “selling” an idea may have an incentive to exaggerate efficacy and ease of implementation.

Bad Reasons

Not knowing that a solution exists.  Failure to identify that the presenting problem is an instance of an already solved problem.  Shouldn’t professionals in an area be aware of good practice?  The Local Government Digital Pipeline and similar initiatives, including the What Works Centre if we get it, can be key here.

Fear of replacement/losing job if there’s a better way of doing this that doesn’t need me, so I’ll build a solution around me.

Money to buy in a solution is “real” and would require a budget but my time whilst reinventing is “free”.

Government grants to support innovation emphasise the importance of novelty, indeed they require it.  I will get funding for inventing from scratch but if I want to adapt and adopt I have to pay for it myself.  Beyond this I personally think there is a huge scope for results grants of this type to be made more replicable and scaleable if provider organisations of whatever sector are included – provider organisations have an obvious incentive to take ideas that work in one place and sell them in to others.  A public sector organisation typically doesn’t have as clear an incentive to spread the word.

I believe that my organisation is unique and special and therefore nothing done elsewhere can be relevant.  For me this just starts to specify the required “adaptation” that is likely.

The “technology” must always be fitted and bespoked to the business process.  Actually, sometimes it’s easier to change the business process to fit the standard technology.

Professional self-justification.  Someone pointed out that every council website has text with advice in dealing with pests. This text is invariably written by a pest control officer at the council.  To what extent do we say “hey – this text is great, let’s copy it (with acknowledgement)”.

Creating something new is stronger for my reputation, and more likely to attract kudos, awards etc.  Maybe we need the LGC “stolen with pride” award?  But who would want it?

So What?

What I take away from this is that the cultural and personal obstacles, which not “good” reasons are even stronger than I had thought.  Significant effort – significant leadership – is going to be needed to create a new culture.  As the saying goes “culture is the behaviour that worked in the past” and persual of these lists show that reinvention “works” well at the moment.  I am more concerned about this issue after the session than I was at the beginning.

This also gives a number of pointers for any mechanism that seeks to support the process of identifying prior working solutions.  I don’t think a database will ever cut it.  There does need to be a repository of material, but I think there will need to be a collaborative human “interface” to it, to encompass the inevitable tacit knowledge that exists in a situation of this type.


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