Project, product, and engineering managers are often faced with new problems – problems that don’t have an already pat answer that will resolve the situation quickly and favorably. These leaders must facilitate problem-solving sessions with technical experts and others with appropriate business knowledge. Idea generation tools are useful to stimulate thoughts, ideas, and creativity to find novel solutions to unique problems.
One idea generation tool uses the acronym “SCAMPER” as a thought starter. Each letter represents a verb or action that can be applied to an existing product or solution in order to modify or improve it.
- S – substitute
- C – combine
- A – adapt
- M – modify
- P – put to another use
- E – eliminate
- R – reverse
For example, consider a common coffee mug. A substitute for a coffee mug is a paper cup. We can combine the coffee mug with a snack plate or can adapt the coffee mug to fit in a vehicle’s cup holder. We can modify the coffee mug to increase its insulation value and keep the coffee hot longer. Of course, we can put it to another use and make it a pen and pencil holder on our desk or use it as a vase to hold cut flowers. We can eliminate coffee mugs altogether by either not drinking coffee (no way!) or by using the paper cup substitute already mentioned. Finally, we could reverse the coffee mug and by standing several mugs upside down, we can create a work of art.
The purpose of the actions represented by SCAMPER is to encourage the team to think about alternatives. Some of these ideas may result in new product ideas and others may reveal competitive threats.
Of course, when we consider competitive threats, a problem-solving team should conduct a SWOT analysis. SWOT stands for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. The former elements are internal evaluations while the latter variables address external influences. Teams can use SWOT analysis to identify areas in which solutions for problems may exist concentrating on organizational capabilities and environmental factors.
Most organizations are very good at identifying and promoting their strengths. These are organizational characteristics, assets, or processes that offer a competitive advantage. Marketing and sales campaigns are built on an organization’s strengths and customers point to these elements as differentiating factors.
On the other hand, most organizations find it very difficult to honestly assess organizational weaknesses. A firm must study its customers, competitors, and markets to truly understand its weaknesses. Weaknesses can result from supplier dependencies, cash flow, or a shallow “bench” for human resources. Consider a firm that relies on a single source vendor to supply a critical part for their products. If the vendor experiences an unexpected disruption (e.g. a fire at the factory), the company faces an immediate challenge in its own production. Weaknesses like this are often overlooked but creep into a system from the long-term effects of internal decisions and management practices.
External influences on production, technology, and the markets also require studying customers, competitors, and trends to understand opportunities and threats. Market opportunities may arise as new technologies become available or as consumer tastes change. For instance, automobile manufacturers track the price of oil as a leading indicator of gasoline prices. Gasoline prices influence consumer spending toward more fuel-efficient, small cars (increase in gas prices) or sturdy, heavy-haul pickup trucks (decrease in gas prices). Building on the SCAMPER model, opportunities may also come from substitutes (electric cars) or alternative uses for a product in a new market as well (trucks as military vehicles).
Finally, a firm should assess threats to its existing business model and growth plans. This requires studying competitors’ actions in detail to anticipate market responses to new product launches and market trends. If a competitor commercializes a product faster than your firm does, they may win the bulk of the market share and lifetime revenues. As indicated, threats can also come from outside the core industry. Consider that cell phones have eliminated the need for a separate GPS device.
Brainstorming is the most common idea generation tool. Most people are familiar with brainstorming. It is a group collaboration tool used to generate lots of idea in a short amount of time.
Generally, the problem statement is provided to the group and people call out ideas for possible solutions. Often these ideas will trigger other ideas among the participants so that a large number of potential concepts are documented in a short period of time. One of the basic rules of brainstorming is to reserve judgement of ideas until later in order to keep the creative juices flowing.
However, a drawback of brainstorming is that a lot of ideas are not feasible or practical, yet each needs to be addressed as it was documented by the team. Another pitfall in brainstorming is that the environment is often better suited to confident extroverts and you may miss valuable ideas from quieter thinkers. It is a good idea to couple brainstorming with other idea generation techniques to countermand these drawbacks.
Three Idea Generation Tools
In this post, we have investigated three simple idea generation tools: SCAMPER, SWOT, and brainstorming. When an engineering, project, or product manager faces a new situation, s/he will deploy one or more of these tools with the team. In addition to stimulating new ideas and creativity in an idea generation session, the team should visit the plant, factory, or retail locations to better understand the customer’s perspective of the problem. Too often, our viewpoint of a problem is internally focused on increasing sales or revenues and in developing sexy new technologies, when a consumer is facing issues regarding quality, distribution, or reliability. We also must consider how our competitors will respond in any situation as we tackle problems with unique solutions.
To learn more about idea generation tools, please join us for an NPDP workshop where we discuss SCAMPER, SWOT, brainstorming, and a variety of other tools and techniques. Contact me at info@Simple-PDH.com or 281-280-8717 to enroll in a free NPDP overview course or any of our newly scheduled PMP, Scrum, or NPDP workshops in Houston as well as our online PDH courses. At Simple-PDH.com where we want to help you gain and maintain your professional certifications. You can study, learn, and earn – it’s simple!
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