Professional Development

It pays to reinvent the wheel

Believe it or not, Shark Wheel – a company founded in 2012 – reinvented the wheel. Yes, a real, literal, physical wheel. In a few short years, they’ve grown their net worth to over a million dollars. They were successful in developing a new helix shape that causes less friction and allows the wheels to roll faster and more efficiently.

I’m not mentioning this to tell you to try and reinvent a literal wheel for yourself. That might be a once in a millennium kind of thing. The important thing to take away is that the inventors of the Shark Wheel were the opposite of complacent. They asked questions, refused to accept things as they were, and it paid off. They reinvented the wheel – the wheel! Wheels have been the same for nearly 5,000 years. It’s the perfect example of what’s possible if you actively choose not to accept the status quo.

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

It’s good enough for who it’s for. No need to reinvent the wheel… We’ve all heard those phrases, and you’ve probably uttered a few yourself. I know I have. After all, what’s not to love about reducing your own workload? The problem is that it breeds a mentality of complacency. Why waste time trying to do something differently when we already know what works? Just stay the course and we’ll safely see this through. Yes, I will concede that sometimes following the status quo will do. But it’s not optimal in the long run. And the longer that you operate that way, the longer you’ll be feeding that mentality of complacency in yourself and your organization.

What’s the real problem with complacency?

Nothing is static in this world. Nothing. The world’s first computer took up the space of an entire room and completed pretty minimal functions. The latest iPhone has more than 100,000 times more processing power than the computer that guided Apollo 11 to the moon…and it fits in your pocket. In the 1980’s it was all about no-fat diets. Now, it’s all about the ‘healthy’ fats. Thank heavens, because we can all admit that fat-free stuff tastes like crap. In 2019, 40% of couples met online, far outpacing all other traditional ways couples meet. Public opinion on legalization of marijuana has grown in support from about 33% to 67% in the last decade alone. With so much happening in our lives each day, it can be easy to forget just how fast the world is spinning around us.

So let’s back up to that point where we should just stick to what works. The problem is that you don’t actually know what works – because the world doesn’t stand still. Take it from someone much smarter than me.

We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them

– Albert Einsein

Or, take a lesson learned from an industry that chose not to reinvent the wheel: taxis. When’s the last time you took a taxi? Can’t remember? Taxis dominated the market in most metropolitan areas since the 1920’s. For more than 90 years, they were the local transportation option outside of public transit. But, the taxi empire kept operating with the status quo. For too long you couldn’t pay your cab fare with a credit card. Your options to hail a taxi were calling or waiting by the curb. You didn’t even have a very reliable way to estimate what your fare would be – you just paid what you owed at the end of the ride.

Enter Uber in 2009 and Lyft in 2012. Instead of solving today’s problems with yesterday’s solutions, they tackled the industry with their vision of what tomorrow could look like. In a few short years, Uber and Lyft grew to collectively own  98% of the market share.

Monumental industry shifts like these aren’t as rare as you might think. Startup companies unseat their industry incumbents much more than would seem possible, given that they’re fighting an uphill battle of David and Goliath proportions. There are a lot of reasons why, but one of the most important reasons is they actively encourage challenging the status quo. This mentality seeps into all the policies, procedures, and actions of everyone in the organization. Why do they do it? Because complacency creates failure…because nothing in the world is static. It’s not an option to stand still and continue to succeed.

Innovation is the antidote

Innovation is the antidote for complacency. Maybe you don’t consider yourself to be very innovative – you’re not alone. But do you know how Steve Jobs, Jeff Bezos, and Elon Musk started their journeys to changing the world? They asked questions. More importantly, they asked the right questions. And luckily for the rest of us, learning how to ask the right questions is a skill that anyone can develop.

Take Musk, for example. Being useful to society and accelerating sustainability are principles he lives his life by. It’s also the premise for all his companies. When he created Tesla, he didn’t ask:

How can I create a better selling, more energy efficient vehicle than the competition?

That question preemptively constrains the answers. It frames the information around what the competition is doing, rather than what’s ultimately possible.

Instead, he asked the questions like:

How can I build a vehicle that will be useful to society?

Can a vehicle be both incredibly useful and produce little or no emissions ?

Can a vehicle that is useful, and energy efficient, be sexy?

Those questions brought about answers with information regarding aesthetics, performance, cost, materials, fuel type, safety, etc. And with each one of those answers he could drill down even further with more questions. Open ended questions reserve room for answers that are beyond what’s occurring in close proximity. Fast forward 10 years and not only does Tesla have some of the most innovative, sustainable vehicles in the market, it’s bringing autonomous driving to the masses.

Asking the right questions will help you to look through the lens of tomorrow, rather than yesterday. Ask who, what, where, when, and why. Keep the questions open-ended. Ask questions even if they seem obvious. Ask follow up questions. And don’t get upset by the answers. Follow the information where it leads you, whether it feels pleasant or not. The point is to drill down until you understand the core of the situation. If you’re at a loss for where to start, here are 31 innovation-driving questions to get you going. But I’ll warn you, there are hundreds of ‘the right questions to ask to drive innovation’ lists out there. Not a single one of those was developed with your job or your company in mind. They are guides, not prescriptions. 

By no means am I saying that innovation will magically occur if you start asking the right questions. I am saying that innovations will not occur if you don’t. And no, being that perpetual question-asker in the office may not make you the most well-liked person.

reinvent the wheel

But in 2015, a study reported that 80% of companies foresee their business being disrupted by another innovation. That same study reported 84% of companies felt innovation was integral for their future success. So, it’s not a debate of whether or not those questions need asking, but who will be the one asking the questions. Be that person, and you very well may reinvent the next million dollar wheel. 

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