Why do we reinvent the wheel?

This is a question that has been nagging me for a long time.  Tomes have been written about how reuse is beneficial.  Specifically, if you look at software reuse – the benefits are quite obvious – it saves time by piggy backing on other people’s work,  the software component is likely to have been tested already saving valuable time, being a reusable component it maybe in better adherence of generally known standards etc.  Clearly, it is obvious that reuse is beneficial but hardly anyone
does.  First, let us look at reuse from a cost perspective. It can be reduced to a simple equation Cost of reuse = search costs (cost of finding the reusable that is closest to your needs) + adaptation costs (cost of adapting the resuable to your needs). I am sure all of you have come across the situation where plenty of reusable components were available with very low search costs and adaptation costs, but still reuse did not happen. When you inquire why, the standard answer is that it is due to the “Not Invented Here(NIH)” syndrome. The Wikipedia’s reasoning on why NIH syndrome happens:

In many cases, Not Invented Here occurs as a result of simple ignorance, as many companies simply never do the research to know whether a solution already exists. Also common, however, are deliberate cases where the organization’s staff rejects a known solution because they don’t take the time to understand it fully before rejecting it; because they would have to embrace new concepts in infrastructure or terminology; because they believe they can produce a superior product; or because they would not get as much credit for finding an existing solution as inventing a new one.

If you look closely at this, it is covering circumstances where the Search costs are too high (another way of saying ignorance), or Adaptation costs are too high (new concepts, they can produce a superior one). But we have already seen that reuse does not happen even when Search and Adaptation costs are low enough. At this point, i felt that there is probably a neuro-psychological basis for this. If you look at the extract from the Wikipedia above, there is a small clue – “because they would not get as much credit..”.  However, that still doesn’t answer the question simply because there are myriad instances of companies actually giving greater recognition and monetary benefits to the reuse-rs as opposed to the creators of the reusables. Even under those circumstances reuse was not happening as much as it was expected to. To get another view on the pyschological aspects, I turned to Margaret Boden’s insightful theory(see p54 in this PDF) of p-creativity and h-creativity:

Psychological creativity – ‘p-creativity’ for short – is in evidence when somebody comes up with an idea that is new to them; they haven’t had that idea before, and they find it very surprising once they’ve had it. Children are doing it all the time, of course, both at home and at school; they’re coming up with ideas they’ve never thought before, but in most cases, they’ve been thought of by literally millions of people before them, so they’re not historically creative. An idea that is ‘hcreative’ is one which is not only new to the person who thinks of it, but as far as we can tell, it’s also the first time in human history that someone has come up with it. So all hcreative ideas are p-creative, but not all p-creative ideas are h-creative.

The question then is, are we neurologically wired to be p-creative (could be looked at as NIH)? I came across a brilliant article on Change Management called the Neuroscience of Leadership by David Rock and Jeffrey Schwartz.  I quote 2 small passages from it:

When people solve a problem themselves, the brain releases a rush of neurotransmitters like adrenaline.
For insights to be useful, they need to be generated from within, not given to individuals as conclusions. This is true for several reasons. First, people will experience the adrenaline-like rush of insight only if they go through the process of making connections themselves. The moment of insight is well known to be a positive and energizing experience. This rush of energy may be central to facilitating change: It helps fight against the internal (and external) forces trying to keep change from occurring, including the fear response of the amygdala.

As Boden pointed out as children we are p-creative all the time because that is how we learn. As seen above, the brain rewards you for being creative, p-creative or otherwise, with an adrenaline rush. Since p-creativity is easier, we choose the easy path to neurological rewards. Now, if you go back and look at the reuse equation above, we need to add one more factor – neurological costs. It turns out that for reuse the neurological costs are high because you are going to apply someone else’s solution to a problem you are facing and hence you will not receive some of the rewards. Given the neurological basis of this problem (in many ways similar to Change Management), it is going to be a tough problem to solve. Notes & References:
1. Joel Spolsky has a different take on the subject.
2. I was inspired by Vilayanur Ramachandran’s The Emerging Mind,  to investigate the neurological basis for NIH.
3. Image at the top of the post is courtesy leaplaw.com


  1. Anonymous said October 9, 2006, 2:39 pm:
  2. Anonymous said October 10, 2006, 2:03 am:

    Sorry Sibu. This one slipped my mind. However the point i am making is about people reinventing the wheel and coming up with the same wheel, whereas, if i understand correctly, what you are asking is – whether the wheel is appropriate any more? It should be square instead of circular etc. I think we are talking about two different things.