Are You Paving the Cattle Track

April 27th 2021

When we innovate many of us do little more than pave the cattle track. But what does this metaphor mean? Michael Mcqueen explores the notion of innovation through re-invention and finds that paving the cattle track may well work in the short-term but it may cause more problems than it solves.

A number of years ago I heard a great metaphor for what many organizations and individuals do when it comes to innovation. When we innovate many of us do little more than pave the cattle track. But what does this metaphor mean?

Essentially, the cattle track is a metaphor that goes back to the days of setting up new communities, new suburbs, going to areas where there has been no human civilization, and laying down the first elements of a structure for our communities and societies. Typically when you went into a new area to build a new town or settlement, the first place you would place the first road is over the cattle track that had been imprinted into the earth over the years by livestock. The path that is already trodden, is the path of least resistance. Of course, that's where you put the first track because the track was already there.

However, simply paving over the top of the cattle worn track often caused issues in later times. What worked well as a smart place for cattle to walk may not be the smartest place for a road to go. Once the road's there, buildings will be built around it - and suddenly you find that you've laid the grid for a city or a community in a way that doesn't make sense, and will often constrain growth in the years to come.

When it comes to innovation many of us take something that is outdated and tied to the past, and overlay something new on top of it, potentially causing unseen issues in the future.

The question I often ask of clients is this: if you want to innovate in a way that doesn't just pave the cattle track, you need to ask yourself about the systems that are already in existence. What are the legacy systems and the historical ways of doing things? What needs to be fundamental re-thought to stay relevant? Simply superficially retreading something old to make it more modern won't solve the underlying problems.

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