A source of both grief and irritation when you have been employed in the same organisation for more than, say, five years, is that someone will suggest a great idea. An idea so profound, so productive, so simplifying, that you had suggested it five years previously. It didn’t work then; it won’t this time. You may be tempted to roll out the old cliché “you’re reinventing the wheel”. I wish I could re-invent the cliché.

There are societies which did not invent the wheel, and got by, or invented it but kept it as a children’s toy. As far as I know, it was never the cause of their downfall. It is not included in the triad of doom: guns, germs or steel.

But the wheel is not a simple invention at all, and its very obviousness in turn obscures what – literally – underlies it. Roads. Wheels are of questionable advantage in most terrains, it is roads that make them useful, and roads are now demanded by a car-owning public. It has become difficult to recognise that humans must first have created paths. Arguably, this was the work of herd animals, who in migrating created tracks, flattening them over time. Once you have a smoothed area of ground, then things may roll across. Stones, logs and when the penny drops, wheels. Here we have an environmental exaptation. That is, while the behaviour of herd animals and humans creates smooth paths, these paths allow for the application of the wheel; but they were not themselves created for the wheel.

In Douglas Adams’ excellent story, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, he concludes with the return of the protagonists to prehistoric Earth. They have landed with a disparate bunch of middle-managers, consultants, advertising executives and telephone sanitisers. When Ford and Arthur return to this shipwrecked group, after exploring the young Earth, they are dismayed that this bunch has not yet discovered fire – or the wheel.

As the marketing girl answers their outraged cries: “Alright Mr Wiseguy, you’re so clever, you tell us what colour it should be.” This has echoes of E L Wisty, in Peter Cook’s story of The Man Who Invented The Wheel. The “hairy old Neanderthals” couldn’t decide between Drodba and Gorbly: probably Drodba had invented his bandadbladderstiddle first, but Gorbly had thought of a much better name.

There is, nevertheless, a point here regarding innovation. When we make these suggestions, we often neglect to check that there is a smooth path, an underlying facilitation for the proposal. So, it is not enough to have a good idea, a new wheel. We need to check the lie of the land. Will the organisation bear this? My guess is that it won’t, and that is why it has never happened before.

Instead of showing people the wheel, we need to show them the pre-existing paths, and then they may see the wheel for themselves. Even that is too much. Bring the paths to their attention, give them the time and space to ponder these paths, see what they come up with. Of course, you will get no credit this way, but then, no-one patented the wheel either.