Tales from CPSI and the “Dean Kamen” Effect

cpsi-bubblesHave you heard of CPSI? (typically pronounced sip-see)

CPSI stands for The Creative Problem Solving Institute, the annual conference on Creative Problem Solving, created by the Creative Education Foundation which was founded in 1954 by Alex Osborn (the inventor of brainstorming and writer of the oft referenced, but hardly read [and hard to find] book Applied Imagination).

The CPSI conference is famous (perhaps infamous) as the annual retreat for all interested in being more effective innovators and creative problem solving.

This year’s event was held in Danvers, Massachusetts – not exactly on the beaten path of the greater Boston area, but nonetheless, far more convenient for a Boston local than the events that seem to only happen on the West Coast.

While I was only able to participate in 7 hours or so of the 7 DAYS of the event (which is apparently 1 day LESS than the typical CPSI conference), I experienced a rapid-fire introduction to the experience of CPSI.

For example:

I (re-)met a woman who had chaired the track that I’d presented on at the Front End of Innovation event the month before, and who I’d learned has been to 17 consecutive years of this event. If that’s not dedication, I don’t know what is. Her title is Creative Innovation Pioneer at Kimberly-Clark (makers of a wide variety of consumer products, such as Huggies, Kleenex, Scotts and more) – and uses creative problem solving skills on a daily basis. Very interesting, and always gratifying to hear of companies that take innovation and creative problem solving seriously.

Participants at the event came from over 30 different countries, including a contingent from Nigeria that I happened to stumble while being introduced to Dean Kamen (more on Dean in a second) as the on-premise Starbucks was closing down for the evening (little did Starbucks know that this event stretches on to midnight nearly every night – they might want to stay open a tad longer next year). The Nigerian contingent has attended for several years, specifically to look into innovation within the government, and how to spur growth in the economy, attract investments, and more. A surprising conversation, in many ways.

FIRST Robotics CompetitionThe organization FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology), a non-profit organization started in 1992 by Dean Kamen, was also well represented, with a hall full of kids of all ages who have been involved in the robotics challenges of FIRST, ranging from ages 6 through high school. Contestants are required to build robots of all shapes and sizes, from materials ranging from LEGOs to the annual “box of junk” that Dean Kamen and the FIRST organization send out to participants to ultimately compete in the annual competition held in Atlanta, GA which now attracts over 20,000 people each year.

Met other people from every walk of life, those involved in my “typical” work around technology, software and hardware, as well as those involved in marketing, in corporate sales, insurance, pharmaceutical R&D, consumer packaged goods, government, focus group/research, and more. Roughly 30% of attendees had never previously attended CPSI, and in these times of tightened wallets, I found it a bit surprising to hear of so many attendees who arrived at the event to do the two pre-conference days, and 3 “normal” conference days, let alone the contingent who came for the entire Saturday through Friday experience.

All told, fascinating to see the inventiveness and variety of the attendees at this event. While it is all too easy to become mired in “technology as savior” in the client work I’m typically involved in (and I constantly strive to remind people that business problems existed well before they bought SharePoint or any other solution), it was an interesting experience to validate that while magnifying problem solving capabilities with technology is certainly possible, that the need for creative thinking and critical thinking skills is both highly valued, and a life-long, and certainly career-long goal and need.

Dean Kamen Speaking While on a SegwayWhich brings me to the highlight of my time at CPSI – a lengthy (two and half hour) keynote by none other than Dean Kamen, Founder of DEKA Research & Development Corporation.

Dean is  likely most famous due to his invention of the Segway (at right), which of course was on hand for a test-drive – and made for amusing hallway excursions in the hotel. What many people probably do not know is that Dean holds over 400 patents, and while he is an engineering geek (in the best sense), he has an incredible sense of humor, and ability to cut straight through unclear thinking.

He is an unabashed entrepreneur (can’t run a business without a profit), yet he created the non-profit FIRST back in 1989 to ensure that the future of America, and it’s youth specifically, would have the skills they needed to create the future, and overcome the overfocus of media on the glories of sports and entertainment. Highly recommend that anyone who is concerned about the future capabilities of America (or any country) and the inability of children to compete with the WORLD’s “best of the best and brightest” in science and technology-oriented careers, should take a look at the organization FIRST and see how you can help.

I have a video clip of Dean’s presentation on FIRST – but need to edit a bit for length. Keep an eye out for this shortly.

The vast majority of his commercial work has also been on completely rethinking and transforming some of the basic needs and problems of life, such as the portable dialysis machine – the HomeChoice® dialysis machine, developed for Baxter, the Ambulatory Infusion Pump (for those who need to have constant infusions of insulin, in many cases prior to this invention required patients to be bed-ridden), recent work with DARPA to provide fully modern prosthetics to those American soldiers who have returned missing one or even two arms to function at incredibly high levels (if I can find a public clip of the videos demonstrating the use of these, I’ll re-post – quite incredible), and in general, as you might expect for a man with over 400 patents, an incredible array of work in healthcare, defense, and in creating (not yet in production) equipment to produce clean drinking water from previously undrinkable sources and portable power generation equipment to bring power to portions of the world that, as Dean said “are as unlikely to see traditional power plants in their countries as they are to ever see land lines [i.e. traditional phone service].”

Simply put, if you have been wondering whether YOU or the people within your organization are “creative” or “innovative” – I can only say that the answer is yes, absolutely.

And, as with the questions of the last few years as to whether the “millennials” are better, smarter, faster than the “boomers” (or any age in between) – these are questions not even worth asking folks… questions that are preventing you from solving problems rather than being the problem.

Whether you’ve been given or have studied the appropriate tools to tap that creativity, individually, as a team, or as an organization, that’s another matter entirely – and I’d be happy to discuss my perspectives, as well as training courses that we offer on innovation management and creative problem solving.

Innovation isn’t magic – you, your team and your organization can do it – but it will take some work.

What are YOU doing to create an atmosphere and train the skills of innovation in your organization? Inquiring minds want to know – discuss in the comments or contact me privately (dk[at]informationarchitected.com or 617-933-9655)

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