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Differentiation: The Best Brainstorming Technique in the World

This idea-generating method originated with Alex Osborn, but was simplified by Michael Michalko (author of Thinkertoys – which you should keep under your pillow at night if you’re serious about differentiating).

Michalko calls the method SCAMPER – which is an acronym for the types of questions you can ask yourself (or your group) that will spur ideas. Following are the basic differentiating SCAMPER strategies with in-depth questions for each strategy.

S – Substitute something

C – Combine it with something else

A – Adapt something to it

M – Modify or magnify it

P – Put it to some other use

E – Eliminate something

R – Reverse or rearrange it

Some of the following questions apply to products and some to services – most apply to both.

To generate substituting ideas, ask questions such as these:

  • Who or what can I substitute?

  • Are there other ingredients, materials, processes, or procedures I can substitute?

  • What other format can I use?

  • Is there another approach?

To generate combining ideas, ask questions such as these:

  • What ideas can I combine?

  • What purposes can I combine?

  • What materials can I combine?

  • What resources can I combine?

  • Can I create an assortment, a blend, or an alloy?

  • What can I combine to multiply uses?

To generate adapting ideas, ask questions such as these:

  • What other idea does this suggest?

  • What could I copy?

  • What idea could I incorporate?

  • What different contexts could I use?

  • What ideas outside my field can I incorporate? (a classic innovation generator)

To generate modifying/magnifying ideas, ask questions such as these:

  • What features can be added, made larger, or extended?

  • What functions can be added?

  • What can be duplicated?

  • How can I modify this - what other form could this take?

To generate putting it to some other use ideas, ask questions such as these:

  • What else could this be used for?

  • Are there new ways to use this as it is?

  • What else could I make from this?

  • What other fields could use it?

  • If the production process generates a waste product, what could I do with it?

To generate eliminate ideas, ask questions such as these:

  • What can I reduce or omit?

  • What doesn’t this need?

  • What if this were smaller?

  • Can I divide it or separate it into different parts?

  • Can I condense or streamline this?

To generate rearrange and reverse ideas, ask questions such as these:

  • What arrangement would work better?

  • Can I switch components around?

  • Is there another possible pattern or layout?

  • What if I turn it around or upside down?


The best results come hours, days, or weeks after intense brainstorming. I’ve found that the more intense the brainstorming, the longer it will take for the answer to come, and the better the answer will be.

Assuming that there’s no eureka moment during the brainstorming session, settle in for a period of incubation. Absorb yourself in something completely unrelated – a sport that requires intense activity (tennis, not golf); a hobby that involves concentration (watercolor painting, not gardening); reading a book (non-fiction, not fiction); anything involving numbers (math, spreadsheets), etc. Or deliberately think about the problem intensely before falling asleep.

Is the answer simple?

Did you ever think you had the solution to a problem, only to find that the more you thought about it, the more the solution started expanding and spinning out of control? Those endlessly expanding answers aren’t correct. Experts say that the correct answer is always simple – the one that, in hindsight, seemed so obvious.

Does the answer excite you?

You should feel excitement coursing through every cell of your body. If you’re in a meeting when the answer comes, you’ll find that after you explain it there will be stunned silence followed by spontaneous and unanimous agreement.

The final test

No matter how right the answer seems, verify it. You should only trust your gut if your head gives the OK. Talk to others, both people that are familiar and unfamiliar with your industry. Do some preliminary legwork, run the numbers, price materials, do a patent search, etc. Your intuition won’t know that the price of carbide doubled in the last three months.

Contrary to common wisdom, if you don’t differentiate you probably won’t die. But you probably won’t grow. For some, differentiating will be one of the most exciting adventures their business takes. It will be a time filled with inspiration, planning, optimism, and empowerment. For others, it will be like a trip to the dentist – grueling and nerve-wracking but necessary. Either way, once it’s over, you’ll ask yourself why you waited so long.

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