SCAMPER: The Path to Uncharted Territory

My Favorite Recipe for Creative Thinking

It would be safe to say Paris isn’t missing any more cafes. Home to some of the most renowned culinary establishments in the world, the City of Lights boasts thousands of eateries, spanning every possible gastronomic permutation you could imagine. Now, picture opening a new café at a city like that – the courage to place your hopes and dreams (and probably savings) in such a red ocean! The mind boggles.

Competitive differentiation is just one of the conundrums we face on a daily basis. What can we do differently? How can we work through a problem? How can we delight our clients? Sure, we need to be creative. But how?

Part of the my Innovation team’s mission is to teach proven methodologies to think creatively, driven from our belief that creativity is a skill that can taught and practiced, just like cooking. Sure, some are just born with an innate ability to make fantastic food, but most of us can get through life with a recipe book and a measuring spoon.

In the world of creative thinking, one of my favorite “recipes” is SCAMPER – a simple, seven letter acronym which allows you to generate (and reverse-engineer your way to) pretty much any brilliant idea.

Bob Eberle coined the mnemonic back in the 1970’s as a way to easily sum up and apply Genrich Altshuller’s Theory of Inventive Problem Solving (TRIZ). Since then, it has been the powerful tool and driving force behind thousands of new services and products.

The answer to life the universe and everything may very well be 42, but you’ll find that one or more of the following could definitely do the job:

  • Substitute something
  • Combine it with something else
  • Adapt something to it
  • Modify or Magnify it
  • Put it to some other use
  • Eliminate something
  • Reverse or Rearrange

Let’s take our example, a Parisian café looking for a way to wow the crowds.

Step 1: Breakdown

Break the problem you’re working on down to its most basic elements and list them. It may seem obvious when you think about it, but it really helps to have the different building blocks in front of your eyes – just as it is easier to play chess with pieces on an actual board, rather than structures in your mind.

A Parisian café would be a place to eat, socialize, do business, and of course – drink coffee;  it comprises tables, chairs, a bar, etc; you’d serve hot drinks, cold drinks, appetizers and more…. you get the rest.

Once you’ve broken your question down to attributes and elements, it’s time for…

Step 2: SCAMPER!

Essentially, each of the below is a way to apply structured manipulation on the elements you’ve listed.

  • Substitute something: Take a critical element out of the list, and try to substitute it with something else.
  • Combine: How can we combine elements? Purposes? Appeals?
  • Adapt: What else is like a café? Does the past offer a parallel? Which element can be adapted to suit a different world?
  • Modify or Magnify it: What can we extend? Exaggerate? Prolong?
  • Put it to some other use: What other uses can a café have?
  • Eliminate something: Take a critical element out of the list altogether. How can we compensate for its absence? What can we reduce? Divide?
  • Reverse or Rearrange: Observe the order of each link in the chain. What other arrangement might work better? Can we change the order of cause and effect?

Here are some sample ideas using SCAMPER:

  • Substitute: What can I replace the tables with? How about… libraries? Each table would include literature from a different genre; choose your spot by the lit you love and meet like-minded people.
  • Combine: Take “eat” and “socialize” from our list; how about combining the two appeals by serving shareable food only? Cafes usually play music. How about the option to pay for your drinks by playing a short set?
  • Adapt/put it to some other use: Airport cafes help you pass the time while you wait for a flight. How about a café chain in proximity to banks, post offices and anywhere with a queue? Offer the business symbiotic “queue management”; offer the waiting crowds a more pleasant way to wait.
  • Reverse or Rearrange: Usually, the client pays for the food, and spends as much time as needed at the café for free. Why not reverse that? Get the coffee for free – pay for the time you spend at the café.

So – which of these ideas did the newly established Parisian café choose to ground a competitive advantage? Here’s your answer. Based on a Russian concept, the café allows its patrons to do anything – eat, drink, talk business, play, anything – all for a few euros an hour. The emphasis is shifted from eating/drinking to socializing, creating a multi-functional space for exploration.

If you use SCAMPER to analyze the idea, you will find there’s more than one link to the final idea (eliminate payment for food; compensate by charging for time; combine a café with a boardroom/living room; rearrange the process to payment first, then eating; etc.).

The real strength of this method is the straightforward way to create wide variety of ideas on the way to that brilliant solution. Many of SCAMPER’s manipulations may seem funny at first (“Café with free food? Weird!”), but this is where they draw their power – from the effort to get out of our usual patterns, into uncharted creative territory.

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Danny Lev leads Innovation Management at an online advertising company. Passionate about the mix of technology with creativity and innovation with business, Danny specializes in cultivating and transforming brilliant ideas into sustainable business growth.

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Danny Lev




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