The SCAMPER method stands for seven techniques that help direct thinking toward novel ideas and solutions: (S) substitute, (C) combine, (A) adapt, (M) minimize/magnify, (P) put to another use, (E) eliminate, and (R) reverse.
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Lists of mental models can sometimes start to feel like checklists.
That’s a feature, not a bug. In other words, that is their intended function, because otherwise, as a human, you have the tendency to forget things or let things slip through the cracks. To that end, with this mental model, we’re really going to institute the checklist feeling because SCAMPER is all about a methodical approach to solving problems and finding solutions.
Pioneered by Bob Eberle to spark creativity during brainstorming sessions, the SCAMPER method stands for seven techniques that help direct thinking toward novel ideas and solutions: (S) substitute, (C) combine, (A) adapt, (M) minimize/magnify, (P) put to another use, (E) eliminate, and (R) reverse. Collectively, these techniques are based on the idea that you can come up with something new by simply modifying the old things already present around you.
Think of this mental model as akin to opening a faucet that introduces water to seven pipes, and each of those pipes channels to a unique pot of earth. Each pot has the potential to bring forth a new growth once the seeds in it are watered. Note that the SCAMPER method doesn’t require that you move in a sequential flow of steps. You can use it in any order or sequence and jump among the different techniques.
Furthermore, it encourages the principle of force-fitting, a candidate for a mental model in itself. This means that in order to come up with fresh solutions, you should be willing to integrate ideas, objects, or elements – no matter how dissimilar, unrelated, or apparently illogical they seem to be. This is a major element of SCAMPER because we are too often held back by our preconceptions and assumptions of what cannot be.
Substitute. This technique refers to replacing certain parts in the product, process, or service with another to solve a problem. To carry out this technique, first consider the situation or problem in light of having many elements – multiple materials, several steps in the process, different times or places at which the process can occur, various markets for the product or service, and the like. Then consider that each and every one of these elements may be replaced with an alternative.
Some questions that might help you get into this flow of thinking include the following: “Could a more cost-effective material replace the current one we’re using without sacrificing product quality?” “What part of the process can be switched into a simpler alternative?” “In what other places can we offer our services?”
Let’s say you’re into the production of craft pieces that use a particular kind of glue as adhesive. However, you find that the glue you use easily dries out and clumps up even when stored properly, leading to wastage and more production costs. To solve this problem, consider brainstorming whether you might use a different adhesive to replace what you’re currently using. Another example might be substituting local materials for imported ones, not only reducing costs on your end but also helping the local community in the process.
Combine. This technique suggests considering whether two products, ideas, or steps of a procedure may be combined to produce a single output or process that’s better in some way. Two existing products could create something new if put together. Two old ideas could merge into a fresh, groundbreaking one if fused in the right way. Two stages of a process may be melded into one to create a more streamlined, efficient procedure.
Questions that can facilitate a line of thinking utilizing the combined technique include the following: “Can we put two or more elements together?” “Can we carry out two processes at the same time?” “Can we join forces with another company to improve our market strength?”
For instance, the combination of the spoon and fork has led to the innovation of the spork, a utensil now often packed within ready-to-eat noodle cups because of its cost-saving and convenient design. It solves the problem of having to manufacture two different utensils and effectively halves the cost of production.
Adapt. This technique intends to adjust something in order to enhance it. It solves problems by improving on how things are typically done, with adjustments ranging from something small to something radical. It challenges you to think of ways that you can adjust what’s already existing – be it a product, a process, or a manner of doing things – such that it solves a current problem and is better tailored to your needs.
Noticing that you have less energy than usual, for instance, you may think of solving the problem by making adjustments to your food choices, such as cutting back on empty calories and processed food. In the business world, this technique is also often utilized by brainstorming groups looking to enhance their product, service, or production process.
Some questions considered under this rubric include the following: “How can we regulate the existing process to save us more time?” “How can we tweak the existing product to sell better?” “How can we adjust the existing process to be more cost-effective?”
An example of an adaptation for a product is the development of mobile phone cases that have been imbued with shock absorbers or shockproof material. This clever tweak has obviously been developed in response to the common problem of accidentally dropping and consequently damaging fragile phone parts. In a similar vein, waterproofing mobile phone cases, wristwatches, and the like is another instance of adapting a product in order to improve it.
Magnify or minimize. This technique involves either increasing or decreasing an element to trigger new ideas and solutions. Magnifying pertains to increasing something, such as by exaggerating a problem, putting more emphasis on an idea, making a product bigger or stronger, or doing a process more frequently.
On the other hand, minimizing entails decreasing something, such as by toning down a problem, deemphasizing an idea, reducing the size of a product, or carrying out a process less frequently. Thinking through certain elements in terms of either magnifying or minimizing them is bound to give you fresh insights as to the most and least significant parts of your problem, thus guiding you toward effective solutions.
Discussion questions that apply the magnify technique include the following: “How can you exaggerate or overstate the problem?” “What would be the outcome if you emphasized this feature?” “Will doing the process more frequently make a difference?” As for minimizing, challenge yourself to ponder the following: “How will playing down this feature change the outcome?” “How can we condense this product?” “Will doing this step less frequently lead to better efficiency?”
Say that you’ve been assigned to transfer to a smaller office. You now have the problem of fitting your things into a more confined space. Using the magnify and minimize technique to resolve your dilemma, you can ask yourself questions as to which office components you would want to place more or less emphasis on. Are you going to place more emphasis on having space for receiving and meeting with clients or for tech equipment or maybe for file storage?
Mulling over which aspect to magnify will help you pick out and arrange things in your new office in a way that best reflects your needs and values. As for using the minimize technique, consider which of your office stuff may be condensed together to fit a smaller floor area. For example, while previously you may have had separate tables for your computer and your printer, you may think of using a compact computer desk with a printer shelf instead.
Put to another use. This technique aims to figure out how an existing product or process may be used for a purpose other than what it’s currently being used for. It stimulates a discussion on the myriad of other ways you might find a use for anything from raw materials to finished products to discarded waste. It’s basically about finding a new purpose for old things.
Some questions that can facilitate this line of thinking include the following: “How else can this product be used?” “Can another part of the company use this material?” “Can we find a use for the bits we throw out?”
Consider how this would apply for stuff lying around in your own home. For instance, how would you address the problem of old newspapers just piling up in a corner? Using them to clean your window panes is a common solution, but how about finding other fresh ways to use them? By challenging yourself to think of more unconventional uses, you will magnify the way those old newspapers benefit you, from serving as trusty deodorizers for shoes to being raw materials for fun crafts.
Eliminate. This technique refers to identifying the unnecessary elements of a project or process so that they can be eliminated and thus provide for an improved outcome. It considers how a procedure may be streamlined by dropping redundant steps or how the same output may be produced despite cutting resources. Whatever resource is freed up may then be used to enhance creativity and innovation.
Questions that make up this rubric include the following: “Is there any step we can remove without affecting the outcome?” “How would we carry out the same activity if we had half the resources?” “What would happen if we eliminated this part?”
One of the most useful applications of this technique is in the area of addressing financial problems in daily life. For example, you find that you’re earning enough for your daily expenses but never get to put money aside for emergencies. Barring the option of gaining more income, the only thing left to do is to subtract expenses so you can save for an emergency fund.
Using the eliminate technique, identify expenses you can cut – maybe pass up on buying that shiny new bag you don’t really need or opt for cheaper home-cooked meals instead of dining out. The money freed up from eliminating unnecessary expenses can then be your savings for use come rainy days.
Reverse. This technique suggests switching up the order of the process steps in order to find solutions and maximize innovative potentials. Also known as the rearrange technique, this line of thinking encourages interchanging elements or considering the process backward in order to stimulate a fresh take on the situation.
Some questions that apply the reverse technique include the following: “How would reversing the process change the outcome?” “What would happen if we did the procedure backward?” “Can we interchange one step with another?”
Say you’re having trouble fulfilling your personal promise to exercise more. You’ve had it written in your schedule to spend 30 minutes exercising at the end of the day. But when it comes time for it, you always seem to have other more urgent things to attend to or are too tired for it. Thus, you never get around to doing it consistently. To solve this problem, you may consider applying the reverse technique.
Check whether you may interchange your exercise time slot with another part of your day, such as making time for it first thing in the morning instead. By reversing the time you set for exercising, you may just find it easier to stick to the routine, as in the morning you’re not yet drained or too beset by the day’s activities.
The SCAMPER method is one of the easiest yet most effective strategies for finding solutions to problems and sparking creative thinking. Because a process is explored from seven different perspectives – substitute, combine, adapt, modify, put to another use, eliminate, and reverse – no stone is left unturned, and even unconventional solutions can be uncovered. Where you had one or two ways of looking at a problem, you now have seven additional approaches to apply.
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Peter Hollins is a bestselling author, human psychology researcher, and a dedicated student of the human condition.
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