Have you ever tried to get a new idea simply by choosing to have one? Spend a few minutes and see how many new ways you can think of to sell your product. How did you do? If you’re like most of us, you probably had difficulty coming up with more than a few. Our minds generally don’t cooperate in such matters. It is very hard for us to simply will new ideas without some kind of  intermediate step. But it’s a snap, by comparison, to generate new ideas, solutions, breakthroughs, or whatever you need when you use a checklist of idea-spurring questions.

This article contains a checklist of idea-spurring questions based on my book, Thinkertoys (A Handbook of Business Creativity) and the work of Alex Osborn, a pioneer teacher of creativity and father of brainstorming. Everything new is some manipulation of something that already exists. To create something new (idea, product, service, process, or whatever you need), all you need do is take a subject, and manipulate it in some fashion. There are nine principle ways to manipulate a subject. Bob Eberle arranged the nine ways into the following mnemonic SCAMPER to help folks remember them.

S = Substitute?

C = Combine?

A = Adapt?

M = Magnify? = Modify?

P = Put to other uses?

E = Eliminate or minify?

R = Rearrange? = Reverse?

These questions give conscious direction to your creativity. Instead of trying to juggle several concepts in your mind, hoping that an idea will somehow magically appear, questions focus your imagination on the subject. When you focus on a question, you have to think about it. And when you ask yourself the right question, you have to think up as well as think about something.

You, too, can find creative new ideas to sell your product with SCAMPER questions. As you read the rest of this article, ask yourself how you can improve the way you sell by answering the questions as they occur.


The principle of substitution is a sound way to develop alternative ideas to anything that exists. Think up ways of changing this for that and that for this. You can substitute things, places, procedures, people, ideas, and even emotions. It is a trial-and-error method of replacing one thing with another until you find the right idea.


– What can be substituted in your selling process? Can you

  substitute someone else? Can you substitute something else?

– Can you change the place?

– What would happen if you used another approach?

– What if you used a different procedure?

– Can you change the rules about selling in your organization?

– Can you use other materials to help you sell?

– Can you change your viewpoint about the way you sell?

EXAMPLE. Can you substitute someone else? Garden Way, the manufacturer of high-end Troy-Bilt rototillers, substituted customers for part of its print advertising program. The company recruits them, at the time of their purchase, into its Good-Neighbor program by offering them a special deal on their purchase. Garden Way then lists them in a directory. Garden Way then puts prospective buyers in touch with a volunteer neighbor

who owns a rototiller so the buyer can test drive the machine and query the customer.


Much of creative thinking involves combining previously unrelated subjects and creating something new. The process of combining ideas or elements or parts of ideas is called synthesis. Synthesis is regarded by many to be the essence of creativity.


– What different ideas about selling can be combined?

– Can you combine purposes with someone or something else?

– Combine units?

– How about a combination in packaging?

– What can be combined to multiply possible uses?

– Can you combine appeals with something else?

– Can you provide an assortment, an ensemble, a variety?

EXAMPLE. What can be combined to multiply the purposes? A salesman bought a failing retail store that sold video cameras and VCRs. The salesman contracted with the local amusement park to operate a small booth next to the main ticket booth. There, for a special price, you buy a ticket to the park and rent a video camera. He demonstrates how to shoot video and gives the customer a blank tape. The customer spends the day filming his children. Later, the salesman provides refreshments, shows the video, praises the customer’s talents, counsels the customer on how to improve and asks for the customer’s phone number. A few weeks later, he calls the prospect and announces a special discount sale. If the prospect still fails to buy, he waits two months and then comes to your house bringing a toy for the prospect’s child and shoots another demo around the house. Finally, he shows the video on the prospect’s own television. By combining a retail operation with an amusement rental service, he turned a failed operation into a successful one. Sales are booming.


One of the paradoxes of creativity is that in order to think originally, we must first familiarize ourselves with the ideas of others. Thomas Edison put it this way: “Make it a habit to keep on the lookout for novel and interesting ideas that others have used successfully. Your idea needs to be original only in its adaptation to the problem you are working on.”


– What else is like your product? How is it sold? Does it suggest

  any new ideas?

– Does the past offer a parallel you could use? What has worked


– What could you copy? Is there something similar you could

  partially copy?

– Whom could you emulate? What have others done? What have

  experts done?

– What different or unusual contexts can you put your product in?

  Historical context? Future context?

– What ideas can you adapt from the world of sports? Television?

  Books? Politics? Movies? Religion?

EXAMPLE. What could you copy? A Princeton, N.J. saleswoman, who sells magazine subscriptions, figured out how to make subscriptions an impulse item by adapting an idea from the way stereo accessories are sold. Stereo accessories are sold in colorful packages that hang from retail racks or spinning racks. She boxed her gift subscription forms with greeting cards and displays them on spinning racks in shops. Retailers get a new impulse item, publishers a cheap way to add new readers. Sales exploded.


An easy way to create a new idea is to take a subject and add something to it.


– What can be added? More time? Greater frequency? Extra


– What strength can you add? Can you maximize existing strengths?

– What can be magnified, made larger, or extended?

– What would happen if you exaggerated? Overstated?

– What can add extra value? Can you make your product do more


– What can be duplicated? Doubled? Repeated?

– What’s missing that could be useful? What are the gaps that

  have to be completed? What else do you need to know?

– How could you carry it to the dramatic extreme?

EXAMPLE. Can you add more frequency? IKEA, the Swedish furniture chain, figured out a way to expand its retail traffic by renting Christmas trees. “The spirit of Christmas can’t be bought, but for $10 you can rent it,” the IKEA ad said. For $20–$10 for the rental and $10 for the deposit–IKEA would rent you Douglas fir in New York City where trees go from $50 and up. After the holidays, customers return the tree and IKEA would mulch the tree for their garden or donate it to their community. The customer also received a coupon for a free four-year-old Blue Spruce sapling to help save the environment. Customers can pick up their tree in the first week of April. That’s selling! Just by being extra nice to its customers, IKEA made it worth their while to visit a store three separate times.


At one time, the Ford Motor Company had 60% of the automobile market. General Motors asked questions about modification and came out with a philosophy that stated, “A car with every shape and color for every purse and purpose.” Henry Ford responded with “Any customer can have a car painted any color so long as it is black.” Ford’s sales slumped, and by the 1940s, the company had just 20% of the new car market. GM, by modifying their products to the market, soon took the lead. What can be modified? Just about any aspect of anything.


– How can you alter the way you sell for the better?

– What can be modified about the way you sell?

– Can you change meaning, name, color, form, shape?

– Can you give it a new twist?

– What doesn’t feel right? What can you do differently?

– What changes can be made in the sales plans? In the process?

– In what other form should you present your product?

– Can the package be combined with the form?

– Can you change your perspective? How would your teacher look at

  it? Your father? Competition? Ted Koppel? Napoleon?

EXAMPLE. Can you give it a new twist? Is it possible to outsmart the competition without outspending them? Sheri Poe, founder of Ryka, Inc., found her market for women’s sneakers by creating a new twist in her marketing plans. Instead of selling just her sneakers, she also sells her concept: “The first sneaker made for women, by women.” Instead of concentrating her advertising efforts directly on the consumer, she markets to aerobics instructors and salespeople. In only five years, the company has grown to $8 million in sales.


One finds an idea, product, or service and then imagines what else you can do with it. A subject takes its meaning from the context in which you put it. Change the context, and you change the meaning. George Washington Carver, botanist and chemist, discovered over 300 uses for the lowly peanut by constantly looking for new uses.


– In what other ways could your product be used?

– Are there new ways to use as is?

– Can you make it do more things? Can you find other benefits?

– Can you modify it in some fashion to fit a new use?

– What’s being wasted that can be put to use?

– Other extensions? Spinoffs?

– Other markets?

EXAMPLE. Are there new ways to use as is? In 1956, the Jacuzzi brothers, who sold water pumps for farm use, designed a special whirlpool bath as a treatment for their cousin’s arthritis. They sold a few for other victims. It wasn’t until 1968 that Roy Jacuzzi discovered another use and another market for it—the luxury bath market—and bathrooms were never the same again. The Jacuzzi sold like crazy across the country from California to the White House.


New ideas are sometimes found when you subtract something from your subject. Through repeated trimming of ideas, objects, and processes, one gradually narrows it down to that part or function which is really necessary or is appropriate for another use. For instance, if you omit the warlike function from a tank and keep only the caterpillar track, you create a tractor.


– What should you omit from the way you sell?

– Should you divide anything? Split up?

– What’s not necessary? What isn’t the problem? What can you

  leave out? Omit? Subtract? Delete?

– How can this be done better and more cheaply? Streamline?

– What if you understate?

– Can you separate your sales procedures into different parts?

  Can you determine the correctness of each part? Can you improve

  one part at a time?

– Can you eliminate the rules? Simplify? Where could you ease


– What if nothing is done?

EXAMPLE. What should you omit from the way you sell? If you don’t give massive rebates and run hundreds of millions of dollars of advertising hype, there is no way you can sell a car in America today. Right? Not so, proved Gordon Stewart, owner of Garden City Chevrolet in Garden City, Michigan. He knows that Americans do not like to bargain for a car. They always feel as if they have been had. So he did something about it. He eliminated the dickering and sold the idea of no-dickering pricing.

He put red-tag final offers on the windshields of his cars. He gave the people a reason to come in and look. A  car sticker-priced at $12,234 had a nonnegotiable red tag price of $10,408.

His sales people are paid on volume, not profit. They must sell the dealership and the car. Can you imagine a car salesperson selling a car and not price? Selling price is never selling. Last year, he sold 2,079 cars to retail customers, well above the 1,125 limit set by the factory. If a GM dealer can sell his way out of an economy like this, any business can do it.


Creativity, it could be said, consists largely of rearranging what we know in order to find out what we do not know. Rearrangement usually offers countless alternatives for ideas, goods, and services. A baseball manager, for example, can shuffle his lineup 362,880 times.


– How else can you arrange things? What other arrangement might

  be better?

– What would happen if you interchanged components?

– Change the pattern? What other layout might be better?

– Can you change the order? Where should this be in relation to 

  that? Change the sequence?

– Transpose cause and effect?

– How about timing? How about a change of pace? Different tempo?

  Change schedule? Chronologized? Systemized?

– What if you changed the way you work? Change your environment?

  Method? People? Priorities? Habits?

EXAMPLE. What happens when salespeople change the pace of their presentation? Fast-talking salespeople are sometimes regarded with suspicion, but rapid speech may actually increase one’s persuasiveness. Noran Miller and his coworkers approached Los Angeles residents in parks and shopping malls and asked them to listen to a tape-recorded speech arguing that caffeine should be regarded as a dangerous drug. All subjects heard the same message, but half heard it at the slow rate of 102 words per minute and half at the fast rate of 195 words per minute. The fast-talking communicator was viewed as being the more knowledgeable and objective, and was more effective at changing the subject’s attitudes. Within limits, the faster you talk, the more likely people are to assume you know what you’re talking about.


Reversing your perspective on your ideas, goods or services opens your thinking. Look at opposites and you’ll see things you normally miss. Ask “What is the opposite of this?” to find a new way of looking at things. Many creative people get their most original ideas when they reverse a subject.


– How can you reverse the way you look at selling? Turn it

  around? What happens when you play devil’s advocate?

– Can you turn the negatives into positives? Reframe them?

– What are the opposites? What happens when they are reversed?

  Reverse assumptions? Roles? Relationships? Uses? Functions?


– Can you consider it backwards? Work from the desired result

  backwards to the subject?

– What if you did the unexpected? What surprises can you pull?

  How can you turn the tables?

EXAMPLE. Reverse assumptions? The Williams Companies had 28,000 miles of oil pipeline all over the country. When they were looking to move into new businesses, they assumed they had to find something they could pump through the pipes. Nothing worked. Finally, a salesman said, “How about not pumping anything through the pipes?” He then asked various companies if they had any use for 28,000 miles of empty oil pipelines. One day he called MCI and discovered that they could run their fiber-optic cables through the pipes. They sold the idea to MCI, and the rest is history.

Instability has become almost a way of life in the U.S. because of frantic social, business, and technological changes. This instability means that fresh ideas will become the most precious raw materials in the world. Salespeople need to think on their own, to produce new ideas, and to take responsibility for their own destiny. This question checklist may be the tool that will open your mind to create the idea that will revolutionize the way you sell and your life.

ABOUT Michael Michalko

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