The technique known as SCAMPER has been around for a while. It was probably first devised by Alex Osborn who was an entrepreneur in the brainstorming-world. As it might imply, SCAMPER is a mnemonic. I have slightly altered it. SCAMPER stands for:

S = Substitute

C = Combine

A = Alter

M = Modify

P = Put (to other uses)

E = Exclude

R = Rearrange

The principle behind SCAMPER is that there’s nothing new in the world. Rather, everything now created isn’t new; merely a modification of something that already existed. That’s rather a simple view but I’m sure that you appreciate what I mean. Just think how many items made of plastic there are! They all came from petroleum and were modified in some way.

The key behind using SCAMPER is to find exactly what it is you want to apply the SCAMPER technique to: the object in question and them ask any or all the questions that pertain to the SCAMPER mnemonic. Using the SCAMPER principle has been shown on countless occasions to increase creativity especially if stuck on a solution or looking to create something novel.

Here are possible questions for the letters but there are many possible questions; be creative in what you ask!:

S = Substitute

What elements can I substitute for something else?

C = Combine

What could I combine with what I have to make something different?

A = Alter

How can I alter this and what might happen if I did?

M = Modify

If I modified what I’ve done so far [and added much more of that] what might happen?

P = Put (it to another use)

Where else could I use what I’ve got?

E = Exclude

What could I exclude from the procedure and what effect might that have?

R = Rearrange

If I rearranged how I put this together what might that give me?

These are just some of the questions that can be asked that apply the SCAMPER mnemonic. What follows are some specific examples in the history of invention that illustrate the application of SCAMPER.

S = Substitute

Perhaps one of the most flexible, widely used and constantly improved instrument over many years is the piano forte, or piano, as we know today’s modern instrument to be called. Cristofori (c. 1700) is said to be the inventor of the instrument that resembles the piano of today. Neither the harpsichord and clavichord quite cut the musical mustard, as one was too quiet for performance on a large-scale (clavichord) and the other didn’t give the dynamic (loud and soft) range required (harpsichord). They both featured plucked strings as well unlike the piano forte that would feature hammers striking the strings.

Over the next 100 or so years the piano’s components were constantly substituted and improved, as one part after another was substituted for a better, more responsive sound. This was perhaps most notably made when felt hammers were used, as a substitute for layered leather or cotton. The famous Steinway family continued to improve the piano to give us one of the most flexible and responsive instruments that we have today.

C  = Combine

Combining one field of science with mathematics has led to many new discoveries or inventions. Most notable was Gregor Mendel who discovered that certain traits (he used peas) correlated to specific mathematical patterns: Mendelian Inheritance. He went on to explore what would happen if mathematics and biology were combined and created the field of science that we know of today called genetics. It wasn’t until the 20th century that independent research verified Mendel’s inheritance theory but it still serves as a foundational model (although it has been improved) for the modern science of genetics today.

A = alter

Thomas Edison constantly altered things to develop and improve them. In fact he’s quoted as saying, “Make it a habit to keep a look out for… interesting ideas that others have used successfully” and alter them. Very wise thinking. We can thank Edison for that ‘light bulb’ moment with the invention of… You guessed it. [Ehem…]

M = Modify

Coming right up to date, well, almost, in the history of invention we have Yuma Shiraishi: the Japanese inventor who created the rapidly becoming obsolete VCR. Necessity is the mother of invention, as they say. Shiraishi worked out how to lengthen tapes previously used so that they would be sufficiently long enough to record movies. The VCR, as we know it, was invented.

P = Put (to another use)

How many uses can you find for a peanut? George Carver discovered 300 uses for it! Former president Jimmy Carter must have been delighted!

E = Exclude

The Hungarian László József Bíró noticed that newspaper ink dried especially quickly. That in itself isn’t remarkable; many of us would have noticed that. What distinguishes great inventors though is application. Bíró wondered what would happen if he put this ink in a fountain pen. The effect was that because the ink was too viscous it wouldn’t flow out of the fountain pen. Bíró faced a choice: exclude the use of the ink and keep the fountain pen or visa versa. He decided to exclude the use of the fountain pen and invent a new product that utilised the fast-drying ink. I suspect you’ve already worked out what he invented: it was the Biro. It was a brave decision to forego the fountain pen in favour of a new creation. The fountain pen is a design dream: aesthetic beauty and delight in my opinion and I’m sure others too. It was the correct decision though: the Biro took the world by storm and over 14 millions Biros are sold world-wide every day.

R = Rearrange

Sports managers and coaches seldom realise how many rearrangements of their players are possible. A baseball manager, for example, has 362, 880 arrangements for their players so there should be a formation to provide any defence!

And what about the humble computer or typewriter keyboard? Amos Densmore rearranged the positions of the keys on a typewriter to give the familiar QWERTY layout that we have today. You might be surprised to know that this happened in 1875. What was the reason for the rearrangement? It was to prevent commonly typed letters that were close together on the original typewriter layout sticking to one another when typing.

Of course, this is irrelevant on a computer keyboard but we’re all so used to this layout that having alternative layouts is disorientating. Have you ever typed a label using a Brother ™ P-Touch 1010 label maker? If you have you’ll know what I mean.

Are you in education?

For those who are involved in education you might like to know that Bob Eberle took the principles outlined above and utilised them extensively throughout his education career. Here’s what he presented in the classroom for pupils. I have added my own words in squared ‘[‘ brackets:

S – Substitute – components, materials, people

C – Combine – mix, combine with other assemblies or services, integrate

A – Adapt – alter, change function, use part of another element. [Also known as Alter]

M – Modify – increase or reduce in scale, change shape, modify attributes [e.g. colour, shape, size]

P – Put to another use

E – Eliminate – remove elements, simplify, reduce to core functionality. [Referred to by me above as Exclude]

R – Reverse – turn inside out or upside down, also use of Reversal. [Referred to by me above as Rearrange]

Let me know where you use SCAMPER in the coming days. What’s the most creative way that you you could SCAMPER in your personal, work, social etc life? Better go, got to SCAMPER…