On reinventing the wheel

Alex Ewerlöf (moved to substack)
3 min readJun 15, 2022
picture of 3 cavemen. one holding round shaped wheels made of stone with a suggestive look towards the other two who are moving a cart with square shaped wheels. One of them says “no thanks”. The other says “we are too busy”.

This image has floated around the internet for some years. I have been guilty of using it too. However, there are a few observations worth sharing:

  1. Almost always, it’s the guy with the wheels in his hands that shares this image to make a point. To him, the problem and solution are obvious, but others are too busy to take the genius seriously.
  2. The problem with the older solution is not as obvious as the square wheels vs the round ones but rather the amount of load, the potholes on the road, the smoothness of the axel, experience of the people using the tool, etc. The reality is more complex. It is not helpful when someone just shows up with another wheel without understanding the root cause with the system. Honestly, do you think that the first people who came up with the “wheel” idea, made it square shaped?!
  3. While the other two are doing something, the guy with the wheel is standing at the side. Talk is cheap. Everyone can come up with an idea, but the best idea is the one that fits. It just happens that fitting ideas come from people with experience. There’s nothing wrong pushing a cart with square wheels but there is a problem if the very next iteration doesn’t address such an obvious issue.
  4. “Let’s not reinvent the wheel” is usually used to kill new initiatives and sometimes with good reasons. But wouldn’t it be more impactful to use every idea as a learning opportunity? Let’s communicate why it doesn’t work. Logic vs emotion. Sometimes, the answer is not words, but code. A little PoC can reveal a lot about the merit of an idea. Experimentation and discovery are great tools of evolution.
  5. One thing that’s missing from the picture is the road that the load is going to! Where are they going? Do they really need to take those stones there or is someone generating work just “because”? Effectiveness is doing the right thing. Efficiency is doing the thing right. If a better wheel is about improving efficiency, the road is about effectiveness.
  6. If there’s one thing the image got 100% right is the cave men! Biologically we are not that different from our ancestors who walked the earth some 40,000 years ago. In fact, our brain capacity and body has changed little during that time due to how slow evolution works in nature. One thing that changed the fate of our species is our ability to transfer knowledge beyond our lifespan. Let’s communicate, experiment and leave new insights to the next generation.

PS. Look at that a**hole just sitting on top of the cart while we’re trying to have a conversation here! 😆

Here’s another variation of the same idea:

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