luggage rejectionGame-changing ideas are often ignored, rejected or met with a shrug. How can better questions open eyes, hearts and minds to new ways of doing things?

My favorite example of rejection (followed by slow acceptance, then, “I can’t imagine the old way!”) is the introduction of wheeled luggage. Who needed this simple invention? As it turned out, everybody did. Would anyone buy a suitcase without wheels today? Well, maybe those folks who assembled the vintage collection I saw in a Chicago hotel lobby (photo above).

Each time my recipe for social learning is rejected, I remind myself of this story: 

Bernard D. Sadow had a bright idea while shuffling through U.S. customs on his way back home from a family vacation: What if…what if this suitcase had wheels?

Did weary travelers and eager retailers rise up and cheer when Bernie began pitching his liberating idea? Nope. At first he encountered only shrugs and naysayers.

For many months after receiving his patent in 1972, Bernie 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?

As The New York Times reported in 2010:  “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.”

Examples of design thinking questions that would have been eye-opening at the time:

  1. What are the trends in air travel and ground transport linkage (from travelers’ perspective)?
  2.  How could the experience of moving luggage be improved?
  3.  What gender (and other) assumptions about suitcases might be wrong?
  4.  Who makes suitcase buying decisions?
  5.  What compromises are travelers making WRT the use of suitcases? (dependence on porters, carts)

It’s worth noting the particular skills and attitudes Bernie needed to look beyond being burdened by the family suitcases, to seeing his wheeled luggage for sale at Macy’s: imagination, questioning norms, perseverance, sales and learning from experience.

Bernie Sadow took the “lug” out of luggage. His statue should be in every airport and train station. Homer Simpson (Season 26, Episode 12) identified “the guy who put wheels on luggage” as the greatest living inventor. It’s a stretch for us today to imagine how the concept of wheeled luggage could have been rejected. But this example helps us see how unasked questions continue to plague inventors and impede progress today.

-Sharon VanderKaay