SCAMPER Toward Innovation to Support Your Business

It’s also a great home teaching tool!

Many of us are feeling more than a little overwhelmed by a world turned upside down right now by COVID19–and companies are scrambling to pick a path that supports survival, let alone success. When you are trying to find a new way forward, a great tool is the SCAMPER technique.

I was surprised in recent years to discover that a number of people are not familiar with this basic tool (really more of a cheat sheet) for supporting strategic thinking and innovation. Creativity, innovation, change, brainstorming–whatever you want to call it–becomes easier when you have a simple road map identifies specific steps in the process, which is what SCAMPER does. Best of all, it can be applied to just about anything.

Here are the basics: Start with what you have or currently do, and ask yourself how you can apply the following changes to create something new, apply a new process, or look at your product or service from a new perspective.

  • S – Substitute
  • C – Combine
  • A – Adapt
  • M – Modify
  • P – Put to another use
  • E – Eliminate
  • R – Reverse

For example, when confronted by a recipe at home and you don’t have a particular ingredient on the shelf, you try to think of what you could substitute.

Put it to another use is a classic approach for expanding business. There is an old saying in marketing that there are only four ways to grow a business. There are many variations of this, but here’s how I first heard it:

  1. Get more (new) customers to buy your product/service (This is generally expanded target marketing)
  2. Get your existing customers to buy more of the same product/service or more frequently (This is often selling strategies)
  3. Come up with more ways to use the same product/service (This is innovation in how they apply the product/service)
  4. Change your product/service to be more valuable to customers (This is any improvement that has value)

Here’s an example: Right now, some research suggests that using part of an old nylon pantyhose over homemade or even high grade surgical masks can increase their effectiveness, making them almost as good as the N95 masks in great demand. Pantyhose! This research that came out of the Three Mile Island nuclear crisis many years ago so it’s not a wild idea. If I were a pantyhose maker, I’d be thinking about marketing my product for a new purpose. If possible, I might even switch some manufacturing capacity to make these 8 to 10 inch “leg” sections that can be easily pulled on over a homemade mask. Or maybe it’s as simple as a marketing campaign/PSA showing how to make a nylon stocking “over-mask.”

What about reversal? This may seem like a hard one, but it can be powerful. I use it fiction writing when I’m really stuck. If a scene I am obsessed with isn’t moving forward, sometimes the only help is to ask yourself what would happen if this scene didn’t? In business, if you can’t sell to your traditional customers right now, perhaps it’s time for–as Monty Python says–“something completely different.” What if you start giving away your product to someone else? This is what some restaurants are doing to support communities in need, while silently building a powerful image that will attract traditional customers who like your ethics and want to help. (Sort of a “build it and they will come” approach.)

Curiously, many offices are being forced to use reversal to keep going today: I’m talking about the sudden shift to remote work, something many companies have fought for years despite research showing that productivity goes up, people tend to actually work longer (in place of commuting), and many employees are happier.

Hopefully, some of this will stay with us for the future since it’s also benefiting the environment, and forcing everyone to become more creative. Education may change forever, business may change forever, and rather than seeing this as a terrible ordeal, view it as an opportunity to turn your past thinking on its head to discover something better.

Anyway, I think you get the picture. If you are searching for a new way forward, give SCAMPER a shot. It’s deceptively simple yet powerful. No matter what happens, it will help you train your brain to think in new ways by giving you a simple set of steps to follow.

Added Bonus! SCAMPER is a great teaching tool as well.

If you have kids at home, here’s a good home teaching assignment: Ask them to create a list of how they could use something familiar in a new way or make something they use better. You can choose the object, or let them. Then have a discussion about their ideas and show them even more ways to apply SCAMPER. They will love the challenge and the chance to be creative–and it helps develop critical and creative thinking skills!

© Chanda K. Zimmerman, 2012-2020