When we’re looking for ways to generate new ideas or find innovative new insights, we have to force ourselves away from the usual options.
New ideas often have to be artificially provoked: we have to ‘seek the silly’ to find the things no one else has thought of and acted on already. Most people are familiar with the idea of brainstorming; an intensive process of generating and writing down ideas. However, most people and most organisations do this really badly. The point of brainstorming is to generate a quantity of ideas rather than quality ideas. The moment you start to look for the right idea, you start filtering and then you’re judging them before they even hit the page.
Some basic rules for good brainstorming:
Suspend judgement: everyone has to withhold criticism for the duration of the brainstorm; you can evaluate later.
Give everyone a pen: otherwise, someone controls what gets written and starts to be a filter.
Encourage the silly: daft ideas are often stepping stones to better ones.
Write single ideas in big letters on individual post-its: this encourages a visually engaging process that is highly readable and flexible.
And aim high: set an artificially high target number for ideas to really generate a quantity of ideas that will have to include silly ideas to reach the target. Also, think about how you frame the question. If you ask people to design a better mousetrap, you might just get a bigger piece of cheese and a new mechanism. If you’d asked people to solve the problem of mice in the house, you might have bought a cat. ‘SCAMPER’ is a specific acronym used to explore new perspectives on an idea and is a great tool for brainstorming. Each of the seven letters is a provocation to re-imagine what is being looked at. As we go through the seven provocations, we’ll also illustrate their potential.
None of the seven is necessarily mutually exclusive from the others, but between them they offer some useful prompts to creative thought. Take the bicycle. Let’s ‘SCAMPER’ the bicycle.
The ‘S’ is for ‘substitute’: is there a part or idea that can be swapped for something else? Could we make it out of a different material or in a different shape? Over the history of the bicycle, they’ve been progressively made from lighter and lighter materials. The earliest bikes were wood and iron, evolving through stronger and lighter steel, aluminium and carbon fibre. Maybe more importantly, the wheels are now pneumatic tyres, not the solid wheeled bone shakers of the 19th century. The ‘C’ is for ‘combine’. Are there ways of integrating or mixing the elements of the idea or adding further ideas? Adding an electric motor to a bicycle provides more power, for example.
However, one of the most compelling combinations for bicycle users has to be smooth, tarmac roads. Without a smooth path it’s hard to imagine the earliest bicycles ever catching on. You could also explore the different contexts for bicycle use. Why is cycling such an adult activity in Europe whilst it’s still considered a child’s activity in the USA? What is the combination of factors that leads to that perspective? The ‘A’ is for ‘adapt’ or ‘adjust’. How can we change the idea for different users? The tandem, the fold-up commuter bike, the racing, touring or mountain bike are all adaptations of the same basic idea for different settings and users.
Each of these adaptations comes with changes to materials, shapes, sizes and the significance of different factors. The ‘M’ is for ‘modify’. Specifically, are there elements we can magnify up or minimise down? Obviously, the front wheel of the old penny-farthing has been reduced down over time. Likewise, the weight and profile of bikes is tailored to their users. Compare the bikes used in an Olympic velodrome for wind resistance compared to a cycle touring bike. Minimising some aspects of design whilst others are maximised helps tailor an idea for specific purposes. The ‘P’ is for ‘put to alternative use’. Could you take the core idea and use it to deliver something radically different?
You’ll have sometimes seen the bicycles core seat-pedals-chain set up as a way of human powering electrical devices, where the bicycle is no longer a means of transport but a means of providing power. The ‘E’ is for ‘eliminate’. Could you take something away from the idea and it still work? Velodrome bikes eliminate the spoked wheels for solid rims for example. There have been periodic crazes for fixed gear or ‘fixie’ bikes which do away with the freewheel mechanism of the modern bike and sometimes remove the brakes too. There is also the unicycle which eliminates almost everything. Finally, the ‘R’ is for ‘reverse’.
Is there some aspect of the idea that can be turned on its head and could you derive value from the opposite? By all means look up ‘reverse steering bike’ and try and establish the value of such a thing. Equally, over the history of the bike, the pedals were often placed on the front wheel. It was only when the positioning was reversed that we see the modern bicycle emerge. ‘SCAMPER’ is essentially a method for exploring and interrogating a product, service or idea. Too often we assume that the way the world is now, is the way that it has always been and always will be.
There are always new ideas to be found, we just have to be willing to look where no one has looked before at ideas that were too silly before, but might be possible today.