Reinventing Wheels

I just came across an article complaining that companies are using the terms innovation and creativity too frequently. Apparently we need to keep score lest someone get away with claiming that something is creative when it’s really not. Some marketers are probably guilty of overusing these terms; there’s no doubt plenty of buzz around them these days. But I suspect there’s something deeper behind the criticism.

What is it about attempts at creativity and discovery that so frequently prompt us to turn up our noses and sniff, “Well that’s not really new.” As if to say that if it’s not a world class breakthrough, it simply doesn’t qualify. We don’t do that with other skills and behaviors. When a child wins a race, we don’t say to her, “Well that was no Olympic record.” When a student gets a perfect score on a math test, we don’t sneer, “Oh, people have been working problems like that for hundreds of years.” We don’t because we realize how discouraging that would be. Yet we will aggressively reject any claim to a discovery or creative accomplishment that we think isn’t truly new and different.

With most endeavors, we willingly praise a child for the most trivial accomplishment. Yet we seem to feel some obligation to explain that what the child thinks he or she may have discovered is really not all that “new.” Even when it’s obviously new to that child! By the time we’re adults, we’re made to feel like we have to be the next Thomas Edison or have a platinum record to dare call ourselves creative. It’s an attitude reinforced by some of the world’s leading creativity researchers, who argue that real creativity only applies to something new to the world. That’s like having a coach tell you that you’re not really running unless you’re doing it at a world record pace.

What does this have to do with business? A lot.  As organizations strive to become more innovative, they need to recognize the importance of practicing those skills. Reinventing the wheel may sometimes be a good thing—if it helps us become more proficient at inventing. Yet our businesses and schools and personal attitudes are so focused on the fact that we already have wheels that we reject the notion that someone who reached such a breakthrough on their own might be a good person to have on our team. Besides, reinventing wheels is often much more valuable than we tend to assume. We had digital music players before the I-Pod. We had search engines before Google. We had automobiles before Henry Ford, and discount retailers before Wal-Mart, and cups of coffee before Starbucks, and…so on. Reinventing wheels can be very profitable!

I’m not condoning plagiarism or co-opting others’ ideas. I agree that there’s great value in learning from other people’s experiences. But developing our ability to create and discover, like any other skill, requires use and cultivation. Gaining that needed experience surely means creating and discovering things that may at times duplicate something someone has done before. That’s not uncreative; it’s practicing. (And organizations can use the practice just as much as people). If the only thing that counts is a first time breakthrough, those practice sessions will surely be few and far between.

It’s time we lightened up and re-examined our standards, with our kids, with our peers and with ourselves. What’s wrong with a little practice (and encouragement)? With more of it, we might all become more innovative.

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