A Brainstorming Card Deck

Thinkpak is a brainstorming tool. It is designed to break you out of your habitual way of thinking and produce a wide variety of fresh thoughts that will lead to new insights, original ideas, and creative solutions to problems. It will change the way you think.

Everything new is really just an addition to or modification of something that already exists. Whenever you want to create a new idea, product, service, process, breakthrough, or whatever you need, Thinkpak will help you take your subject and change it into something else. Alex Osborn, a pioneer teacher of creativity, first identified the nine principle ways of manipulating a subject. They were later arranged by Bob Eberle into the mnemonic SCAMPER:

  • Substitute something.
  • Combine it with something else.
  • Adapt something to it.
  • Modify or Magnify it.
  • Put it to some other use.
  • Eliminate something.
  • Reverse or Rearrange it.

Suppose you wanted to improve the ordinary metal paper clip. You could substitute plastic for metal and add color, creating plastic clips that would allow clipped papers to be color-coded, thereby putting the clips to another use.

THINKPAK contains idea-triggering questions based on these nine principles. The questions are designed to focus your attention on your subject in different ways and give you different means of interpreting what you are focusing on. These different ways of focusing will break your habitual thought patterns and let you look at your subject in fresh ways. You’ll generate a quantity of ideas quickly, including ideas that you wouldn’t have otherwise considered. Once you apply the THINKPAK questions to your subject or situation, ideas begin to appear almost involuntarily. 

Applying SCAMPER to a Hamburger
Ray Kroc was a middle-class high-school dropout, a former piano player, and a real-estate salesman who sold paper cups for seventeen years. In his fifties, Ray Kroc left the paper cup business and hit the road selling a little machine called the Multimixer, which could make six milkshakes at a time.

One day in 1954, a hamburger stand in California ordered eight Multimixers. Curious, Kroc drove his dusty little car out to investigate. He was stunned by the volume of business that Dick and Maurice McDonald were doing. They had unwittingly hit on the concept of fast food–homogenized, predictable items that are quick and easy to prepare. The McDonalds had simplified, economized, and minimized the hamburger stand.

Kroc and the McDonalds formed a partnership that allowed Kroc to find new sites, and open and run them. What followed was not instant success but obstacles and challenges. Ray Kroc became a billionaire because he identified the right challenges and manipulated existing information into new ideas to solve them.

Following are some of the challenges he faced and how the SCAMPER principles helped to shape his ideas.


Problem: The McDonalds proved to be lethargic business partners. Kroc was worried that they might sell out to someone who didn’t want him around.

SCAMPER Solution: Substitute a different partner. Kroc was cash poor, but he was determined to buy out the McDonalds. Kroc raised the $2.7 million asking price from John Bristol, a venture capitalist whose clients (college endowment funds) realized a $14-million return on their investment. The next substitution was to go public, which he did in 1963, making many investors rich. 


Problem: Ray Kroc’s first hamburger stand was planned for Des Plaines, Illinois, but he couldn’t afford to finance construction.

SCAMPER Solution: Combine purposes with someone else. He sold the construction company half-ownership in return for constructing his first building. 


Problem: Ray Kroc was interested in developing a new twist on the food business, but he lacked ideas.

SCAMPER Solution: Adapt someone else’s idea. Kroc was amazed at the volume of business the McDonalds were doing by selling a hamburger in a paper bag here, or a helping of french fries there. Kroc’s big idea was adapting the McDonalds’ simple merchandising methods to create a brand new concept–fast food. 


Problem: The french fries made in Kroc’s first stand in Illinois didn’t taste like the originals; they were tasteless and mushy. He tried the McDonalds’ recipe again and again, to no avail. A friend finally solved the mystery–Kroc stored his potatoes in the basement, while the McDonalds kept theirs outside in chicken-wire bins, exposed to desert winds that cured the potatoes.

SCAMPER Solution: Modify the storage area. Kroc cured the potatoes by installing large electric fans in the basement. 


Problem: A number of franchise owners wanted to expand the basic menu.

SCAMPER Solution: Magnify the burger and add new items to the menu. He created the popular Big Mac by way of a $10 million “Build a Big Mac” contest. Later additions included the Egg McMuffin, Filet-o-Fish, and Chicken McNuggets. 


Problem: Kroc needed to develop other sources of income.

SCAMPER Solution: Put McDonald’s to use in the real estate business. Kroc’s company would lease and develop a site, then re-lease it to the franchisee, who would have to pay rent as well as franchise fees. Today, 10 percent of the company’s revenue comes from rentals. In the 1960s, Kroc also bought back as many of the original sites as he could. While this policy initially accrued huge debts, it gave McDonald’s the upper hand against competitors, who periodically faced massive rent hikes. 


Problem: Hamburger patty distributors packed their burgers in a way that was efficient for them, but that also meant McDonald’s employees had to restack them to keep the bottom patties from getting crushed.

SCAMPER Solution: Eliminate the problem. Kroc refused to do business with packagers unless they shipped fewer burgers in each stack. Employees no longer had to restack burgers, saving McDonald’s time and money. He also eliminated the middleman by buying entire crops of Idaho Russet Burbank potatoes. 


Problem: Kroc wanted to differentiate his establishments from the competition.

SCAMPER Solution: Rearrange the architecture. Kroc kept changing the original red-and-white, box-shaped prototype into the Golden Arches and added drive-throughs in the 1970s. 

Even the hot dog, as we know it, is the result of asking the right question at the right time. In 1904, Antoine Feutchwanger was selling sausages at the Louisiana Exposition. First, he tried offering them on individual plates, but this proved too expensive. He then offered his customers white cotton gloves to keep the franks from burning their fingers. The gloves were expensive, too, and customers tended to walk off with them. Antoine and his brother-in-law, a baker, sat down to figure out what inexpensive item could be added (modify) to the frankfurter to prevent people from burning their fingers. His brother-in-law said something like “What if I baked a long bun and slit it to hold the frank? Then you can sell the franks, and I can sell you the buns. Who knows, it might catch on.”

Every new subject or idea produces a host of creative by-products, initially seen many times as irrelevant, but available for fashioning in novel new directions. Think of all the entrepreneurs who visited the McDonald’s hamburger stand and did not see the latent potential. The McDonald brothers had unwittingly hit on the concept of fast food, but Ray Kroc took the concept and moved it into a novel new direction.

Consider the Walkman radio. Sony engineers tried to design a small, portable stereo tape recorder. They failed. They ended up with a small stereo tape player that couldn’t record. They gave up on the project and shelved it. One day Masaru Ibuka, honorary chairman of Sony, discovered this failed product and decided to look for its potential. He remembered an entirely different project at Sony where an engineer was working to develop lightweight portable headphones. “What if you combine the headphones with the tape player and eliminate the recorder function altogether?”

Ibuka was mixing up functions. The idea that tape players also record was so well established that no one had considered reversing it. Even after Ibuka made his creative association, no one at Sony believed they could market it. Ibuka was not discouraged and plowed ahead with what he called a new concept in entertainment. Ibuka took a failed idea and, by combiningeliminating, and reversing, found the latent potential and created a brand new product. The Walkman radio became Sony’s leading selling electronic product of all time and introduced all of us to the “headphone culture.”

Ibuka took what existed (a failed product) and recycled it into something new. Similarly, Michelangelo’s masterpiece, David, was the result of another sculptor’s failed attempt. Back in 1463, the authorities of the cathedral of Florence acquired a sixteen-foot-high chunk of white marble to be carved into a sculpture. Two well-known sculptors worked on the piece and gave up, and the badly mangled block was put in storage. Other sculptors were brought in and asked to carve a statue. They refused to work with the mangled block and demanded a new block. They said they couldn’t possibly produce art out of the mangled block. Their demands were not economically feasible, so the project was scrapped by the cathedral. Forty years later, Michelangelo took the mangled block of marble from storage and carved it into the youthful, courageous David within eighteen months. He took what existed and sculpted it into the world’s greatest statue.

You can recycle any subject or idea into something else by transforming it in some fashion using the SCAMPER questions. Isolate the subject you want to think about and ask the questions to see what new ideas and thoughts emerge.

 (Michael Michalko is the author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Thinking Strategies of Creative Geniuses;  Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck, and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work.)

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