A Look at the SCAMPER Problem Solving Technique: Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to Other Use, Eliminate, Rearrange

A Look at the SCAMPER Problem Solving Technique: Substitute, Combine, Adapt, Modify, Put to Other Use, Eliminate, Rearrange
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SCAMPER is an acronym for:

  • Substitute
  • Combine
  • Adapt, Adjust or Add
  • Magnify, Minify or Modify
  • Put to other uses
  • Eliminate or Elaborate
  • Reverse or Rearrange.

Each letter in the acronym represents different challenges or possibilities and contains a set of questions to trigger new problem solving ideas. Such ideas may be complete solutions or starting points for further lateral thinking.

Alex Osborn first espoused this concept, but Bob Eberle popularized the concept in 1991 to increase interest in perceptive, imaginative, and creative faculties of children. It has since then found widespread use in the business and corporate environment as an enabling tool to facilitate creative decision-making.


The component “S” stands for “Substitute” and prompts the decision maker to think of substituting a process or product with something else. Some of the questions asked are:

  • Who or what can be substituted without affecting the process?
  • Who might take the place of X?
  • What to use instead of X?
  • What other materials, ingredients, processes, power, sounds, approaches, or forces may provide the same or better results?
  • Is there a better place to run the process?
  • Is there a better time to run the process?
  • What will happen when X and Y are swapped? …and more

Such questions make explicit the various alternatives available, allowing the decision maker to compare each alternative before adopting a final course of action. Administering a questionnaire to team members allows different perspectives, which may include some out of the box ideas.

For example, a management team might discuss the issue of a high rate of defective products and apply the approach of substitution to run the quality check process at the end of the assembly line that allows for making instant corrections rather than at a later stage when the only option may be to reject the product.


How to Solve Problem by Applying Creativity

The “C” in SCAMPER refers to “Combine” and prompts the possibility of combing two or more processes, products, ideas, or anything else to produce synergy and radically alter the final product.

Questions related to “Combine” include:

  • What materials, features, processes, people, products, or components combine to produce synergy?
  • What mix, alloy, or assortment produces the best results?
  • Does X mix or get along with Y?
  • Can this idea work in unison with another idea?
  • Does mixing X with Y work?
  • How to merge X with Y?… and more.

One good example of a radical new invention born out of combing is the Gutenberg printing press. Gutenberg invented his path breaking movable type printing press by combining the mechanism of a grape press with a coin punch.


“A” refers to Adapt, and may also denote “Adjust” or “Add.” This entails brainstorming about what part of the product or process to change or tweak for better results, or to bring radical changes to the whole process. Some questions that help in this direction are:

  • What part of the product can be changed, and how?
  • What will happen when altering this component?
  • What will happen by adding this component to the process?
  • What is out of tune or not aligned properly?
  • Which ideas to adopt (benchmark) from other processes or businesses?
  • What lessons from the past event is applicable or is applicable here?
  • What adjustments would lead to the desired outcome?
  • Who and what to emulate?
  • How to apply a particular idea to a present problem or issue?

Problem solving through adopting, and adjusting requires sideways thinking, and using available tools within new contexts and situations. For example, in the wake of increased cyber attacks, the US Department of Defense plans to install sensors in sensitive computer networks that allows them early warning of intrusion attempts. This is a result of applying the early warning radars adopted in conventional national defense to computer network security.


“M” refers to Modify. At times, the best approach to solve a problem is by distorting the status-quo. Considering the process in a micro and micro perspective may unearth new realities or possibilities. Typical questions toward such an approach include:

  • What happens when wrapping a feature or a component?
  • How will modification of the process change the result?
  • Will enlarging the process make a difference?
  • Will minimizing or making the process smaller or less frequent make a difference?
  • Will altering characteristics change the form or quality of the product?

Most quality improvement and troubleshooting approaches aim at modifying the process. The Six Sigma approach for example, aims at modifying the process to reduce deviance from the standard mean.

Put to Other Uses

The “P” in SCAMPER refers to refers to “put to other uses” meaning how to put the current solution, product, or process to other purposes or uses, or what to reuse from somewhere else to solve the problem at hand. One classical manifestation of putting to other use is finding an alternative market for a product when one market dries up, or seeking a new client when the contract with one client terminates.

Typical questions in brainstorming to this effect include:

  • What are the other markets for a product?
  • What other outputs can this process generate?
  • Where else can this process find deployment?
  • Who else can use this product or service, and for what purpose?
  • How many different ways does this product find use?
  • Will this product work in other places?
  • Who else finds this product useful?
  • How to enhance the value of the product without changing the intended use?

Companies that adopt such approaches to problem solving solve resilience and change. PepsiCo, the soft drink giant has leveraged its strong procurement and distribution networks to roll out Tropicana brand fruit juices to offset reduced soft drinks sales as the negative effects of soft drink consumption spread and soft drink sales decrease.

Eliminate or Elaborate

The “E” in SCAMPER refers to “Eliminate” or “Elaborate.” The problem might be a specific process or part of a process, which if eliminated, may make the rest of the process work seamlessly. Alternatively, one particular process may be ill defined, and act as a drag on the whole system.

Some typical questions that aids brainstorming in this direction include:

  • What would happen on removal of this component?
  • How to achieve the same objective without this component?
  • Will removal of this process or object alter the result?
  • What requires elaboration to make the process or product detailed, enhanced, fancier, brighter, or elegant?
  • Will streamlining this process help improve process flow?
  • Why is this process here? How will taking it away affect the product?

Such line of thinking suits the Lean philosophy that harps on eliminating everything that is not necessary, and extracting only the essence to run a seamless process. It also finds use to overcome difficulties owing to non-availability of a particular product or process. For instance, the harmful effects of excessive salt consumption may prompt food manufacturers to experiment with natural herbs such as thyme, replacing salt.

Reverse or Rearrange

The “R” in SCAMPER refers to “Reverse” or “Rearrange.” At times, consider working the process or product in reverse, or fixing a solution first and trying to add up processes that lead to a solution.

Typical questions in this line of thinking include:

  • What would happen on reversal of the process?
  • How to achieve the opposite of what happens now?
  • What might be turned around or placed opposite for the desired results?
  • How best to rearrange the layout plan or scheme?
  • What other pattern, layout, or sequence would improve the results?
  • Is it possible to interchange the layout or patterns?
  • Can the roles reverse without any serious consequences?

To apply the SCAMPER technique to solve problems, first define the problem in specific and clear-cut terms, and consider solutions by subjecting the problem to all of these questions. Success depends on adequate preparation, concentration, incubation, illumination, and verification.


Image Credit:

  1. freedigitalphotos.net/renjith krishnan
  2. flickr.com/jean louis zimmermann