Not invented here explains the mystery of why organizations re-invent what has already been done well by others. Sometimes it’s a tribal thing, if we didn’t make it: it could be dangerous, we could become dependent, or it won’t fit our needs. Most of the time these fears are irrational.
Sometimes it’s a matter of cost. Many people ignore options that cost money. Ironically, premature trade-offs in monetary cost never consider the salaries that go into re-inventing the wheel.
Whatever the reason, if we ignore our options and start from scratch, our customers are going to suffer. We have to look at the worth of our options, and then the cost, to determine the optimal course of action. A wise decision uses the formula:
Return On Investment = Value/Cost. We can’t make a decision based on cost alone. And, keep in mind there’s no course of action that will ever be free, money is often deceptive.
I want to coin a new phrase: Not learned here
Perhaps, the essence of not invented here covers not learned here. Regardless, I’m going to borrow the wikipedia definition:
Not invented here (NIH) is the philosophy of social, corporate, or institutional cultures that avoid using or buying already existing products, research, standards, or knowledge because of their external origins and costs. The reasons for not wanting to use the work of others are varied, but can include fear through lack of understanding, an unwillingness to value the work of others, or forming part of a wider “turf war”. … The term is normally used in a pejorative sense. The opposite predisposition is sometimes called “proudly found elsewhere” (PFE)
and make a few changes:
Not learned here (NLH) is the philosophy of social, corporate, or institutional cultures that avoids using experts when learning and adopting existing products, research, standards, or knowledge because of their external origins and costs. The reasons for not wanting to use the work of others are varied, but can include fear through lack of understanding, an unwillingness to value the work of others, or forming part of a wider “turf war”. … The term is normally used in a pejorative sense. The opposite predisposition is sometimes called “proudly learned elsewhere” (PLE)
Death is tragic, and, it’s extremely inefficient. Not only do we lose those we love, we lose an entire lifetime of wisdom. In Battlestar Galactica, the evolved, human cylons overcome this tragedy through literal re-incarnation. If only we had a way to pass on our wisdom so efficiently. Until then, learning is a critical skill.
For many technical professions, learning is a never ending process. It’s one of the reasons I love what I do, I crave learning. There’s plenty of things we can and should be able to learn independently. Especially with the internet at our finger tips. That said, learning is an area we can end up re-inventing the wheel, without even knowing it.
If we neglect to reach out, there are costs that we really should consider:
- Months and years of salary to learn what someone else could teach us in a few days or weeks. And it’s not just time to set up a solution, it’s the experiences of dealing with the challenges that come as we support a solution over the course of months and years.
- The cost to train and re-train as we incrementally learn and correct our mistakes. Some of this is to be expected, some of it can be avoided entirely by starting off on the right foot.
- What alternatives we may not have considered. If we’ve never explored the terrain, how likely is it we will be aware of alternatives, let alone trade-offs between alternatives?
- Months and years of not reaping the benefits of what we’re trying to accomplish. That’s months and years behind on the next initiative too.
- Becoming enamored in a particular solution. In the rush to get started learning, we often fail to validate the need we actually have. We fail to narrow the scope of the need enough to appropriately constrain what we set out to accomplish. We get lost in the myriad of things a particular solution can accomplish. We end up creating a lot of waste by learning and implementing things we don’t need. Waste that gets in the way of what we actually need.
Essentially, we’re looking at the cost to become experts ourselves, or close to it.
The alternative, as appropriate, is to learn to rely on an expert for the things we don’t need to be experts at. What should we be experts at? Ask yourself, what value do I create for my customers? What value do I create for my customer’s customers? Those are the things we want to be experts at. Anything that supports our work, that others do well and can do for us with a greater return on investment for our customers, are wise things to seek help with.
Why don’t we reach out? I can’t speculate about every reason, but I would like to point out one reason that’s a big concern: when individuals are valued for what they know, not what they can accomplish. With this mentality, no one can ever be an expert, none of us have the capacity to know everything, let alone really all that much. However, if we make ourselves experts at creating results for our customers, we can work together to learn individually, and from others, to maximize what we accomplish.
Unfortunately, even when we do reach out, this same concern spills over. It’s very common to reach out and ask to learn a very specific thing. For example, “I want you to teach me how to use Microsoft Word.” In doing this, we seek what someone else knows, not what they can help us accomplish. Perhaps the person wants to help their customers create promotional posters that really stand out to consumers. For whatever reason, they came to the conclusion that Word was the answer.
If the person they reach out to is lacking this context, they probably aren’t going to teach much of value. They won’t be able to make recommendations and take that person down a path to alternatives from, say Adobe. Don’t ask me which Adobe product, I’m not in the business of promoting, Adobe may not even be the answer. And that’s another problem, perhaps the person they reach out to isn’t even capable of taking them down the right path. Either because they have pigeon holed their specialty in Microsoft Word, or because it’s just not a part of their expertise.
I know how to use Microsoft Word, could I teach someone how to use it? Yes, if they need to write technical documents. If they need to create promotional posters, even if Word could do that, there’s no way I’d be qualified to help that person. How I can help is dictated not by what I know but what someone needs to accomplish.
Perhaps a better example would be to talk about my own expertise. I help organizations improve how they develop software to quickly and confidently deliver results to their customers. I’ve also been a part of boutique software development. One may think the two are the same. But if we talk about what purpose each expertise serves, we’ll see they serve separate customers. When I was a part of boutique software development, my purpose was to help customers create specialized software that supports and delivers value to their customers, in their particular area of expertise.
A boutique software development firm needs to effectively deliver software, but they don’t have to be experts at effectively delivering software. They depend on this expertise, but they can look outside to get it. Even if they look internally, they likely have another branch of their business they turn to, as internal customers. In fact, in the rush of meeting needs of customers in custom software, it’s very difficult to stay abreast of much else. It’s a special skill in itself to effectively create results through custom software. It’s another skill entirely to effectively develop and deliver software.
In the world of software, unfortunately, many organizations prematurely constrain the help they seek, to their own detriment. For example, much like Word above, they’ll ask to be taught how to use a particular product, or to implement a particular practice. I will admit, just like any expert would, that I don’t know every product and practice that may be of help. But, if you come to me to improve how you develop software, and work with me to understand your needs, I will find the right tools and practices and make sure you’re successful. My customers know they’ll be able to stand on my shoulders, and if I’m not tall enough, I won’t hold them back.
A big part of effective learning is tied to understanding what we want to accomplish. If we focus on that, we’ll see opportunities to learn on our own and to learn from other experts when it falls outside the domain of our own desired expertise. When this happens, we end up standing on the shoulders of the experts around us. Instead of trying to become a jack of all trades, master of none. We can defer judgement and have confidence that at the end of the day we’ll accomplish more for our customers.