New ideas are often ignored or rejected. How can better questions make a difference?
Let’s begin by imagining how the invention of wheeled luggage might be met with a shrug.
For many months after receiving his patent in 1972, Bernard D. Sadow’s idea of a wheeled suitcase (pulled by a loose strap) was rejected. As he rolled his sample from meeting to meeting with various department stores, he was greeted with indifference. Eventually he sold his invention to Macy’s, and the market grew quickly as this story in The New York Times recounts.
But it wasn’t until 1987 that Northwest Airlines pilot Robert Plath invented the roll-aboard suitcase which was pulled in an upright position using a long handle. Plath at first sold his Rollaboard to crew members, then his invention became a hit with passengers who saw it in use by flight attendants.
The initial rejection of wheeled luggage demonstrates a pattern of clinging to the old, difficult way when a better way may be under our noses. What kinds of questions would have changed how people viewed such an opportunity for innovation? What questions would have exposed unmet needs?
The New York Times reported: “Mr. Sadow recalled the strong resistance he met on those early sales calls, when he was frequently told that men would not accept suitcases with wheels. “It was a very macho thing,” he said.”
So, for example, these questions might have been eye-opening at the time::
- Who makes the suitcase buying decisions?
- How could the experience of moving luggage be improved?
- What if travelers could see a wheeled option in use?
- What are the trends in air travel and ground transport links?
- What assumptions should we verify before we say no to this idea?
It’s a stretch for us to imagine the idea of wheeled luggage being rejected. But this exercise helps us see how unasked questions may continue to hold up progress today.