July 14, 2024


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One of my favorite brainstorming frameworks is the SCAMPER technique. It stands for Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to another use, Eliminate, and Reverse. Advertising executive Alex Faickney Osborn developed the original principles in 1953. Then, Bob Eberle turned them into a memorable acronym and expanded on the concept in 1971 when he wrote the book, Scamper: Games for Imagination Development.

Many people believe that creative thinking is an innate ability. That may be true for some people, but the rest of us can be creative too, with tools like SCAMPER. Let’s dive in.

Related: 5 Ways to Transform Your Next Work Brainstorming Session Into Something Really Great

Define the problem to solve

Before you get started, define the problem clearly. You can apply SCAMPER to products, processes, ideas or anything else you want to improve upon. You can even use it to reveal new opportunities to compete. To illustrate the technique, let’s consider the shift from cars powered by combustion engines to electric vehicles (EVs) as we explore each component of the SCAMPER technique.

Substitute

The first component of SCAMPER is Substitute. Look at your idea and break it down into its parts. What people, materials, processes or other elements is it comprised of? What people could you substitute into the process to get a different outcome, and why? What happens if you swap out a material, process or something else?

If you were brainstorming ways to improve upon gas-powered cars, you might ask yourself what to substitute. Eventually, you might ask yourself whether you could substitute its power source. Moving from gas to electricity is the substitution that sparks the idea of electric cars and sets off the chain reaction of imagining every component replaced with an electronic equivalent.

Combine

Now take your existing components, as well as your substitute items, and imagine combining them in new ways. Can you produce a better outcome? Are there functions or features that you can combine to make your idea better in some way? What about the process?

The underbody of standard cars is typically composed of hundreds of parts that are assembled together during manufacturing. Tesla simplified the underbody of their vehicle with a process called gigacasting, where they die-cast it as a single unit. You can think of this as the combination of the hundreds of parts that are required for the same purpose in gas-powered cars.

Adapt

As you dive deeper into the SCAMPER technique, consider how you might adapt your idea. Can you transform a process or component of your idea to make it better? Is it possible to make your idea function differently?

In our example, don’t just think about adapting the vehicle or its power source. Think about the driver. How did people need to adapt to make EVs popular? One way was that they needed to be comfortable with slow-charging their vehicles at home or finding charging stations rather than relying on the vast network of gas stations. This led to innovations in how to power EVs. For example, we find charging stations at shopping malls and other places where people spend time doing other things. Another example of adaptation was the development of a method to fast swap weak batteries with fresh ones, rather than requiring drivers to wait for charging to complete.

Related: Two Stanford Professors Explain How to Produce Hundreds of World-Changing Ideas In 1 Hour

Modify

You can think of substitution, combining parts and adaptation as different forms of modification. Now, think through other ways you can change things up that don’t fit into those categories. What happens if you make this change? Can you increase or decrease something to produce a different effect? Try zooming in and zooming out to identify other things to modify.

One modification Tesla made was to flatten the battery and use it to reinforce the floor of the car. Contrast this with installing the battery in the back or front of the car like the Prius and other earlier vehicles. The result was a lower center of gravity, improving safety and handling, among other benefits.

Put to another use

Now think about how you might use your product, process or idea in a different way. How can you put it to another use? Think about adjacent markets that you haven’t explored.

Part of Tesla’s success has been their focus on “coolness” in their marketing, rather than utility. They’ve put EVs to a new use with the Cybertruck, which looks like something out of Mad Max. It’s cool. They’ve put their technology to other uses, too. EV semi trucks are capable of carrying heavy payloads. Over time, we may see even more ways to put this technology to another use.

Eliminate

Take another look at all of the components of your concept. What would happen if you removed one of its parts? What about other parts or processes? Are there unnecessary components?

One radical innovation was for Tesla to digitize their EV’s dashboard. This move eliminated analog dials, mechanical odometers and other parts and replaced them with a 17-inch LCD. The change simplified the design and reduced parts while increasing flexibility.

Reverse

What would happen if you flip your idea around, turn it upside down or reverse the order of things? What about flipping it back and forth? Will something change?

One obvious reversal among EVs was the relationship between the driver and the car. By definition, drivers drive cars. With the advent of self-driving cars, the car effectively “drives” the “driver.” You could also try looking at the manufacturing process in reverse as a way to identify waste and optimize production.

Related: To Get Your Team Brainstorming Great Ideas, Start With Crazy

You can apply the SCAMPER technique to virtually any industry. Take the EV examples throughout this article, and try replacing them with a product, process or idea that you’re working on. Teach this method to your team, and see how it makes your organization more innovative and fun.



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