Being creative is not always easy. We often find ourselves in a rut, unable to think outside the box. We become comfortable with the status quo and in a particular pattern of thought which prevents progress. We have to find ways to think differently and approach problems from a unique perspective if we seek innovation. It is sometimes helpful to have a particular technique in our toolkits to help get our creative juices flowing - one such method is known as SCAMPER.
SCAMPER is a tool that can be used to garner effective creative thinking. It is based on the premise that what is originality is born from slight modifications and alterations to what already exists. In other words, to be creative, we just need to look at the ‘old’ and think about it in new ways. SCAMPER is an acronym for seven different techniques that help make the old new: Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to another use, Eliminate, and Reverse.1
The Basic Idea
Creativity is a central component of innovation. Without an ability to address what can be changed, altered, or improved upon with regards to processes, technologies, products and artistic forms, there is no room for progress. However, just telling someone to ‘think creatively’ doesn’t provide them with the necessary questions or techniques to help guide them there – that’s where SCAMPER comes in.
SCAMPER is simple, thought-provoking and multi-faceted, which makes it a perfect tool for promoting creativity. Each letter of the acronym provides different questions you can ask yourself to spur creativity:
Substitute: What can be replaced? These might be materials, people, or rules that can be replaced to change the function of the product or process. We might also ask ourselves whether the product’s use can be substituted. The substitute component of SCAMPER works a bit like a trial-and-error process, in which you’d substitute different parts in and evaluate the outcome.3
Example: Innovative food items often use the substitute technique. For example, in 2016, a new food trend emerged: the sushi burrito.4 Realizing the popularity of burritos, restaurants thought about what ingredients could be substituted whilst still maintaining the concept and came up with a sushi burrito.
Combine: What features, uses or components can be combined? Are there features of products that could be synthesized to provide a better, more holistic product? If looking at a project rather than a product, are there different team members that can combine their work?
Example: One of the most successful examples of combining different features is the innovation of smartphones. While originally, people had different devices for taking pictures, listening to music, accessing the internet and making phone calls, smartphones combine all these different functions into one efficient product.5
Adapt: What can be slightly tweaked to improve the product or process? Could a solution to one issue be adapted to help solve a different issue? In what ways does the product/process need to change to adapt itself to changing lifestyles?
Example: Netflix is a company that adapted itself to changing norms and has enjoyed tremendous success as a result. While it began in 1999 as a DVD rental service, executives realized that ‘streaming’ was increasing in popularity and adapted their business model as such. Blockbuster did not adapt its business model and went out of business in 2013, demonstrating the importance of adaptation for success.3 To read more about the contrast between Blockbuster and Netflix, take a look at our Olivier Sibony thinker profile, as he closely examines the mistakes Blockbuster made that ultimately led to its demise.
Modify (or sometimes, minify/magnify): How can the process be changed in a way that changes the outcomes? What can you magnify to emphasize a particular part of the process, or what can you minify to improve the overall efficiency? Can you modify the shape, color, or size?3
Example: If you aren’t convinced that changing the color of a product or brand is enough to change the success of a company, think about some of the most famous logos. For example, consider IKEA and Muji, two companies that sell household goods. Ikea’s logo is blue and yellow, which emphasizes their Swedish origins. Alternatively, Muji’s logo is red, emphasizing that it is a Japanese culture, which may draw attention to the minimalist nature of their products.6 The ‘modify’ technique can be used to shape logos, which greatly influence how a company is regarded by the public.
Put to another use: What benefits might be gained by using the process/product in a different field? Is there another industry in which the product can succeed? How can this product be used in a way that differs from its initial intent?
Example: With rising concerns about climate change, the ‘put to another use’ technique can inspire creative ways to help the planet, such as creative repurposing or upcycling. It can be used to apply something without any purpose to something functional. For example, shoe companies like Adidas have decided to put ocean waste to another use: shoes.3 They started producing shoes made of recycled ocean waste, allowing them to come up with a cool new product and help the environment all in one shot.
Eliminate: Sometimes, the best way to make a product better is to eliminate some of the unnecessary components. What can be removed or simplified? Is there a way to better streamline the product?
Example: Bluetooth earphones eliminated the string component of traditional, wire earphones in order to make the product more user-friendly. Another example is Apple’s decision to remove their CD drive, which enabled them to make laptops thinner and lighter.3
Reverse: Would changing the sequence of effects produce a different outcome? What can be rearranged, flipped, or swapped?
Example: The reverse technique might be especially useful for changing decision-making strategies. For example, if a company is used to taking a top-down approach, emphasizing the big picture rather than micro components, they might reverse their patterns by instead taking a bottom-up approach, which emphasizes specific characteristics. This might help them come up with new solutions that were invisible initially.3
Theory, meet practice
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Many of the questions that lie beneath the various components of the SCAMPER technique were first generated by the creative theorist Alex Faickney Osborn.7 Osborn is often referred to as the man who invented brainstorming. Initially, Osborn referred to the creative technique as a ‘think up’, which he introduced in 1938 and formalized in his 1953 book Applied Imagination.8
‘Think up’ was a process that a group would undertake to find a solution to a problem. First, they would amass a range of ideas in a spontaneous setting. There were some important principles behind the process: no ideas should be criticized; wild and outlandish ideas were encouraged; the group should try to come up with a large number of ideas and group members should try to build upon one another’s ideas.8
Bob Eberle, an educator administrator and writer, was fascinated by Osborn’s brainstorming techniques, especially the kinds of questions he suggested should be asked during sessions. He decided to build on his ideas and apply them to techniques that could be used in education. In 1971, Eberle published a book, SCAMPER: Games for Imagination Development, designed to help children learn how to think creatively. The book provided guided activities designed to have children follow the different components of the SCAMPER acronym; it challenged them to use their imagination for problem-solving.9
As an educator, Eberle thought the technique was especially suited for classroom settings as it requires cooperative learning. A teacher can be in charge of determining the specific problem students need to solve. Students can then work together to brainstorm a wide range of solutions using the different techniques defined by the acronym, which also keeps the exercise clear and simple for young creative minds.
Innovation is what drives progress. Every field relies on creative thinkers to fuel change and improvement. As Thomas Edison, one of America’s greatest inventors, famously said, “There’s a way to do it better – find it.” 3 While SCAMPER is often used to improve products, as has been demonstrated, the technique is also a good one to adapt and improve scientific processes and methodologies.
Just as the SCAMPER technique manipulates the old to yield the new, scientific discovery is often approached incrementally: scientists build upon the theories of others. COVID-19 vaccines, for example, are built upon years of research on other coronaviruses. By applying the former research to the specific problem at hand, scientists were able to quickly develop a vaccine. Additionally, various companies have made slightly different variations of the vaccine, showing how sometimes, the SCAMPER technique can generate multiple solution ideas to the same problem.
The same can be said for behavioral science. Behavioral scientists often belong to different schools of thought, each with its own long history. In practice, they build upon the ideas of brilliant minds who came before them to conjure up new theories about human behavior.
It can be argued that using a rigid acronym approach to creative thinking seems counter-intuitive. Can creativity really be summoned by the mere act of sitting down and asking oneself the different questions that comprise SCAMPER, or does creativity occur in random bursts?
Some believe that brainstorming processes themselves must be creative in order to give way to creativity. The reverse brainstorming technique, for example, prompts people to think about why their problem occurred instead of getting them to brainstorm solutions. During the process, people even come up with ways to make the problem worse, believing that this process will help generate unique solutions later on.10 Another popular brainstorming technique is De Bono’s six thinking hats. It is based on the idea that there are six different ways to think, and that a combination of these ways can be used to look at a problem from different angles. While SCAMPER is split up by type of question, the type of thinking occurring in each section is not emphasized.11
There is also speculation about whether group brainstorming techniques, such as SCAMPER, are really the most effective methods of brainstorming. Psychologist Adam Grant suggests there are three issues with group-setting brainstorming: some shy or introverted individuals do not speak up or are ignored; people hold back extravagant ideas for fear of judgment; and lastly, people tend to agree because they don’t want to disrupt the status quo. That is why Grant suggests that for more effective problem-solving, people should first write down their ideas on a piece of paper before sharing.12 That being said, it is easy to see how the SCAMPER technique can be adapted to also follow this form of brainstorming, with each individual writing down their answers to the various components before having a group discussion.
McDonald’s SCAMPER Success
McDonald’s is one of the world’s most successful fast-food companies and has enjoyed tremendous prominence in our society for over 50 years. A glance into McDonald’s past and present demonstrates the many SCAMPER techniques they have used over the years to modify and improve their brand. Put simply, the company is not afraid to take risks and offer creative meal products.
One component of SCAMPER that McDonald’s has mastered is ‘substitute’. While their original menu only included hamburgers, cheeseburgers, fries, milkshakes and other beverages, today, there are over 100 McDonald’s menu items. The company took the hamburger and thought of different ingredients they could substitute in: chicken, fish, and plant-based patties. These additions also incorporate the ‘modify’ aspect, as original items were modified to provide a greater range of products.13
Another important part of SCAMPER that has contributed to McDonald’s success is the ability to adapt. As society grew to prioritize healthy eating, McDonald’s got rid of their ‘Super-Size’ option and started to brand themselves using words like ‘fresh’ and ‘organic’.13
McDonald’s also modifies and adapts by offering different local products based on the region’s tastes and preferences. While always ensuring to offer their staples, the fast-food chain also incorporates local favourites in an effort to stay relevant and popular.13
The SCAMPER Technique in Educating Gifted Intellectuals
Often, at school, we are expected to learn particular disciplines, with a special focus on mathematics, science, and languages. While it is important to gain a comprehensive knowledge base in all these areas, it is equally important to help teach students not only what to think about, but how to think as well.
This may be especially true for students identified as intellectually gifted. To really harness their intelligence, these talented students need to think creatively. Using a series of exercises developed by the father of brainstorming, Bob Eberle, psychologists Brizeida Mijares-Colmenares, William Masten and Joe Underwood examined how the SCAMPER effect could help students in an intellectually gifted program in 1998.14 The researchers found that the SCAMPER technique was effective at reducing anxiety, and improving flexibility.14 These results are helpful to promote out-of-the-box thinking and innovation in students who are working a step above grade level.
The SCAMPER tool and other brainstorming techniques recognize that innovation calls for new, out-of-the-box ideas. In this article, our writer Natasha Ouslis advises companies to stop playing things safe in their hiring practices. She urges companies to avoid hiring ‘traditional’ employees, who may come from a specific educational background or have particular sought-after work experiences. Rather, she preaches that hiring outside the box will help the companies come up with more creative solutions to their problems.
Climate change is an issue that has been quietly rumbling for years and has recently refused to be ignored. However, it has been incredibly different to influence people to change their behavior in an effort to solve the problem. In this article, our writer Amit Dhir examines how the ‘old’ technology of virtual reality, which has been around since the 1960s, can be repurposed to help combat climate change.
- Elmansy, R. (2015, April 10). A Guide to the SCAMPER Technique for Creative Thinking. Designorate. https://www.designorate.com/a-guide-to-the-scamper-technique-for-creative-thinking/
- Encyclopedia Britannica. (1998, July 20). Ambrose Bierce. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Ambrose-Bierce
- Tran, L. (2016, April 1). Innovation: Better Problem Solving with the SCAMPER Method. InLoox. https://www.inloox.com/company/blog/articles/innovation-better-problem-solving-with-the-scamper-method/
- Krystal, B. (2016, March 5). The Remarkable Rise of the Sushi Burrito. The Independent. https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/food-and-drink/remarkable-rise-sushi-burrito-a6914236.html
- Cox, A. (2020, April 29). SCAMPER Technique – Reduce, Reuse, Recycle… or Reinvent. Netmind. https://netmind.net/scamper-technique-reduce-reuse-recycle-or-reinvent/
- Printsome. (2017, September 18). What happens when we switch the colours of 20 brands. Printsome Insights. https://blog.printsome.com/brand-colour-swap-3/
- Mind Tools. (2001, December 27). SCAMPER” Improving Products and Services. https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newCT_02.htm
- 4A’s. (2018, October 9). Alex Osborn, the Father of Brainstorming. https://www.aaaa.org/timeline-event/74179/
- Goodreads. (n.d.). Scamper: Creative Games and Activities for Imagination Development. Retrieved March 2, 2021, from https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/5454992-scamper
- Elmansy, R. (2015, March 6). Design thinking tools: Reverse brainstorming. Designorate. https://www.designorate.com/design-thinking-tools-reverse-brainstorming/
- Elmansy, R. (2015, January 1). The Six Hats of Critical Thinking and How to Use Them. Designorate. https://www.designorate.com/the-six-hats-of-critical-thinking-and-how-to-use-them/
- Montag, A. (2018, February 5). Why the most innovative people don’t use brainstorming meetings. CNBC. https://www.cnbc.com/2018/02/05/whartons-adam-grant-explains-how-to-be-more-creative.html
- Rampton, J. (2016, February 23). 8 Things McDonald’s Can Teach You About Business Success. Entrepreneur. https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/271098
- Mijares-Colmenares, B. E., Masten, W. G., & Underwood, J. R. (1988). Effects of the scamper technique on anxiety and creative thinking of intellectually gifted students. Psychological Reports, 63(2), 495-500. https://doi.org/10.2466/pr0.19220.127.116.115