PART I: PROBLEM FINDING
Martian Jet Lag
In 1970, Bernard D. Sadow, a vice president at a luggage company, was schlepping two suitcases through an airport when he noticed a workman pushing a machine on a dolly. Inspired, he began to experiment with a rolling suitcase that looked like a large pull toy; eventually he patented a suitcase that sat squarely on rollers, with a flexible strap attached to it. Instead of carrying this suitcase, you pulled it behind you on a “leash.” Sadow’s idea was revolutionary — here was one of the first suitcases designed for airports.
Though it sold well in the 1970s, his suitcase didn’t end up becoming standard equipment for the air traveler. You rarely see pull-toy luggage today. Why not? Sadow’s design was only a half solution. When you pulled too hard, the suitcase would crash into your legs. If you yanked it around a corner, it might lose its balance and flop onto its side.
In the 1980s, a pilot named Robert Plath custom-built his own version of the rolling suitcase in his home workshop. His design was a vast improvement over Sadow’s. Plath put wheels on one edge of the bag so that it could tip on its corner, and he outfitted it with a rigid handle. You could adjust the length of the handle by sliding it up or down, trombone-style, allowing you to find just the right angle so the bag would follow you obediently, without attacking your ankles. This was a bag that you could comfortably tote over miles of airport linoleum.
So why was a pilot’s insight so much more fruitful than the executive’s? The answer has something to do with the way the two men experienced the problem. Bernard Sadow, a businessman heading off on vacation, was merely a tourist looking for a better solution. His was a short-term form of necessity. But Plath — who dragged his bags to and fro after every shift, day after day — was motivated to think deeply about the suitcase problem, to tinker in his garage, and to come up with an ingenious design for frequent flyers. By virtue of his job, Plath was already living in the future, when flying would become a commonplace misery.
In the 1990s, the price of airline tickets plummeted. Companies began sending executives across the country, sometimes on three or four flights a week. Planes began to feel like buses — crowded, smelly, and raucous. “Life Sucks and Then You Fly,” as one Wired headline put it, in an article that described tech employees suffering in the middle seats during their coast-to-coast commute. By that time, passengers were hunting for anything that would ease the pain of cramped flights — from Xanax to noise-canceling headphones. And that’s when the rolling suitcase became essential equipment. Plath’s Rollaboard suitcase took off.
Adam Smith, writing in An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations (1776), observed that there is a special kind of magic in tasks that we repeat over and over again. He described a pin factory where one man straightened the wire, another man cut it, and yet another man sharpened the tip, and so on. In a factory like that, each laborer became an expert in one small task, and his close attention might inspire him to “find out easier and readier methods of performing” his job.
In fact, Smith argued that one of the side benefits of the factory system was the way it turned workmen into inventors. He praised the “pretty machines” that factory laborers devised to ease their drudgery. For instance, he noticed a boy who was supposed to pump a lever in time with a piston. This relentless, grinding task inspired the boy to figure out an ingenious work-around: he tied a string between the lever and a moving part elsewhere on the machine. Now the machine itself pulled the lever for him. After automating his job, the boy skipped off to play with friends.
The economist Eric von Hippel, speaking in 2005, made his own observation about the way repetition can feed the imagination: “I’ve learned personally that you can get a graduate student to do a lot of things, but you can’t get them to do it twenty thousand times in a row, [because] they will start to invent” a way to automate the boring job. There seems to be some kind of threshold — some number of hours — after which frustration produces creative insight.
In the 1970s, von Hippel came up with a name for the people who struggle with problems for which no off-the-shelf solution is available: he dubbed them Lead Users. Their job or hobby exposes them to an unusual kind of repetition, tedium, or danger. When bike hobbyists began to spend hours out in the woods riding over boulders and tree stumps, their tires popped, and that inspired them to build what we now call mountain bikes. Surgeons who pioneered new methods of operating on the heart had to design tools in order to perform these feats. And in 1982, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University recognized a new problem with digital communication — the flame war — so he devised the happy-face symbol, or emoticon, to cool tempers online.
Lead User Theory
Before he joined academia and became a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, von Hippel worked as an engineer at a startup. And that’s how he discovered the existence of Lead Users. In the 1960s, he became one himself.
Back then, von Hippel needed a tiny fan that would allow him to improve the performance of a fax machine, so he contacted an aerodynamics expert at Princeton and together they designed the fan. With his plans in hand, von Hippel struck a deal with a manufacturing company to produce the device.
Soon, von Hippel received a call from someone at the manufacturer: “It turns out a lot of other people want your fan too,” the company rep told von Hippel. “Can we . . . produce it for them?”
Von Hippel said yes. And then one day he picked up an industry journal and noticed an advertisement for his fan. The company had claimed credit for inventing it. You’d think he might have been angry. But instead, he was fascinated. He had just stumbled across a clue — the first inkling of an insight that would change his life, as well as what we know about technological creativity.
In the 1970s, when he switched careers and became an academic researcher, he dedicated himself to a question: Who really dreams up breakthrough ideas? To find out, he came up with a method that bears a startling resemblance to the way that a detective works a cold-case murder — digging deep into files, interviewing witnesses, and wearing down shoe leather to follow clues. In one of his earliest studies, von Hippel picked more than a hundred lab equipment products and then hired researchers to help him discover the backstory of each of the devices. He learned that about 80 percent of the scientific equipment products had begun with someone who needed the tool. For instance, at a Harvard conference in 1964, a lab worker described a method he’d invented to “bake away” the dirt on a microscope using a piece of gold foil; later that year, a manufacturer transformed this concept into a product. Subsequent studies — by von Hippel and others — have shown that the pattern holds true in many other fields.