Postbureaucrat

Personal blogging by Steph Gray, founder of Helpful Digital and erstwhile bureaucrat

It’s OK to reinvent the wheel

I was on one of those slightly soul-crushing conference calls last week. On the surface, it was pretty enthusiastic and efficient. But then someone uttered the fatal words, to general agreement:

“What’s important here is that we avoid duplication”

I’ve always had a nagging problem when people have expressed this and its variants: Don’t reinvent the wheel. Who’s already done this? We need to focus our effort.

I mean, I’m all for efficiency. And it makes sense to link up with others doing similar work and collaborate. Where you see tight budgets and feel overloaded, it’s frustrating to see things being done twice when once would be enough.

My problem really is with ‘enough’, and whether we critically evaluate that when we cheerfully agree that duplication is a bad thing. I’m not sure if this is just painfully naïve macroeconomics 101 or whether intelligent people otherwise forget what actually drives successful outcomes. But here’s some reasons why duplication can be a good thing:

A better wheel

When different teams are working on the problem, you often get a better outcome, if a few other conditions are in place. As long as the teams can see each others’ work, and their customers can put pressure on them to add feature X or cut feature Y, then you get the benefit of different brains applied to a shared problem, working from different perspectives. Agile as a methodology has plenty of duplication built in (“you build an alpha and throw it away?”) in the service of an end result that adapts to change and feedback.

Pressure on wheelwrights

The space race in the 1960s and 1970s. Britpop in the 1990s. Ridesharing. Smartphones. Web Search. All moved at the pace they did because of competition between a few key teams, who felt the psychological and leadership pressure of others trying to beat them to fame, riches and acclaim. Things move slower and with less user focus when that duplication is absent or weaker. Hello, Microsoft.

Resilience

Sure, it’s duplication to have more than one team or supplier but there are all kinds of reasons why a team or person can go off the rails. A bad takeover or manager, a strategic error, a natural disaster. To avoid keeping your eggs in one basket, there need to be duplicate baskets.

Training wheelwrights

People and organisations need to learn. My conference call was talking about user generated content, which is perhaps the epitome of a situation where duplication is welcome: you want more ideas from more people, with the best upvoted and rewarded. The contributors learn what gets likes, hone their craft, and get better with each contribution.

I guess I’m making a case here for competition, more than duplication per se (though competition within big bureaucracy is almost as unpopular, and wrongly so). For duplication to be positive, you need to have some other elements in place:

Comparability

You need to know what other people are doing, simply put. Large organisations are breeding grounds for teams doing things in isolation with little visibility or communication – and when they’re exposed, the instinct is to hide or be merged, not to compete constructively.

Accountability

Parallel competing teams in a big bureaucracy sounds like a recipe for disaster, for sure. This can’t be an all-consuming race to be the best. The competitors need tight budgets, frank feedback and tough expectations. When ideas don’t work, they need to be killed off quickly and effort put into other things.

Choice

Bureaucracies are quicker to mandate common solutions than they should be. It takes time and experimentation to optimise and turn different approaches into commodities worth buying as a standard. For competition to work, people have to be able to choose the option they prefer to use. Set common standards and require interoperability, for sure. Insist that teams achieve benchmarks and hygiene factors (security, accessibility, usability, cost efficiency etc) but make the space for different approaches to compete within broad rules.

So, here’s to duplication and copying, inefficient short-term competition in pursuit of long-term optimisation. I want to see what people can do to improve on the wheels we have.

Photo credit: Picryl

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