Right now, in meetings at corporations around the world, the wise are suffering. They are trapped in rooms where debate rages over how to solve a problem. The rub is that the problem has already been solved, just not by someone in the room—and solutions from outside are ignored. This is the disease known as "NIH," or "Not Invented Here" syndrome, and it's alive and well in 2010. Despite our many technological advancements in communication, none have eliminated this perennial waste of time. Why is this problem so hard to shake? Will we always be confronted with people who insist on reinventing wheels?
The key reason people look to reinvent things is that they don't know what's already been done. Ignorance, one way or another, is the leading cause of wasted effort everywhere. People who don't spend time studying the problems they're trying to solve are bound to reinvent something, and likely not nearly as well. There are only so many ways to design a website, a marketing campaign, or even a product strategy. Instead of driving minions into further brainstorming sessions, it would be wise to ask: Who else has tried to solve this problem? Can we learn from what they have done?
The second reason for reinvention pertains to ego and rewards. In many corporations there is more prestige to be gained for making something new than for reusing work done elsewhere in the company or industry. This is true even when the newly made thing is much worse that what already existed. An executive might proclaim the wonders of the new (worse) thing to his division without encountering anyone willing to stand up for the old (better) thing. It's harder to inflate the importance of one's own work if the key decision was to buy or borrow from elsewhere. The verbs "make," "invent," and "create" lead to more promotions than "reuse," "borrow," or "convert." In Pavlovian terms, if a culture rewards unnecessary reinvention more than it honors wise reuse, the ambitious will follow suit. Asking people to behave one way while rewarding them for another has predictable results. The counter notion to NIH—"PFE," or "Proudly Found Elsewhere"—has been talked about before, but I've rarely seen it thrive.
Even worse: "Never Anything New"
Some say that patent laws drive many to reinvent, but this is a cop-out. Anyone who has read a few patents knows that they are limited to very specific kinds of ideas. But the fundamentals of web design, product development, and team organization are problems that managers reinvent all the time. The solutions are well-explained on shelf after shelf at any bookstore. There are dozens of e-mail applications, cell phones, and department stores; it's a reasonable bet that few of the things that make them good or bad are protected by patents. A wise competitor can study, learn, and apply those lessons without resorting to theft or copying.
Then, too, some organizations are plagued by NAN—"Never Anything New." This is arguably worse than "NIH." At least with the latter, there's a chance of something better happening, however slim. For organizations stuck with NAN, there's no chance for progress. If just one of your competitors learns from your best ideas, they'll leave you in the dust.
Recently, the word "curation" has been rising in popularity, driven by the growing recognition that the way in which things are combined can transform the ordinary into the superior. Most people don't think at the level of curation, and as a result obsess about minute details that are irrelevant to the goals—especially if those details are the only things for which they are responsible. If you put a sack of groceries in the hands of a talented chef, you'll get a great meal. If you put the same sack in front of NIH-loving middle managers, they'll insist on inventing their own vegetables.
Good leaders, like good designers or good curators, recognize the rare skill of combining things together well. They hire, lead, and reward with that in mind. There's a time to reinvent and a time to reuse, and the best minds know that both approaches have their place.