Mapping the Challenge - You are Here!

Posted by Connie French on May 17, 2010 11:15:27 AM

Harvey and Marian Arbesman TS



Today’s guest post is provided by InnoCentive Top Solver Harvey Arbesman, and his wife Marian Arbesman.  Harvey won the Discovery Prize and the Thought Prize in the Prize4Life ALS Challenge. Harvey and Marian are innovation consultants who in 2002 founded ArbesIdeas, Inc., a research and consulting company devoted to innovation in the life sciences.  They’ll be contributing to this blog from time to time as part of our “Help a Solver Succeed” series.  Harvey and Marian's previous post, A Systematic Approach to Defining the Challenge for a Winning Solution, can be found here.


To raise new questions, new possibilities, to regard old problems from a new angle requires creative imagination and marks real advance in science.

Albert Einstein

Maps are amazing - whether one is taking a trip or trying to locate a specific store in the mall, maps can help you find out where you are, and the best way to get where you are trying to go. In addition, by stepping back from the details of the map, you can understand the big picture of the journey you are taking.

Mapping is also very useful during the process of understanding a Challenge that you are trying to solve. Plotting the relationships among various factors involved in a Challenge can help establish clarity regarding the problem. It also stretches one’s thinking and promotes the development of new thought patterns and connections between established areas.

One mapping concept that is helpful to use at this stage is the Epidemiologic Triad; that the interaction of the agent, host, and environment determines whether any given disease will occur. The underlying assumption of the Epidemiologic Triad is that there is rarely one thing that solely determines if someone will develop a disease. The corollary of this assumption for us Solvers is that we must always remember that there is rarely only one way to solve a Challenge. Looking at the various components that may be playing a role in the problem comprising any Challenge is a key factor in approaching how to solve the Challenge. The classic Epidemiologic Triad has long been used to more fully understand why a given disease develops. In addition to the life sciences, this epidemiologic approach is very helpful for many types of Challenges, including those in business, engineering and design, the physical sciences and the social sciences. When a Solver is first approaching a new Challenge, using the Epidemiologic Triad to systematically review the problem and map what is known about the problem under study helps the Solver get a better sense of where they are in the Challenge. This prepares the Solver to then explore variations of what is already known and to begin to discover completely new areas not on the current map.

So, for this discussion, think, “Challenge” whenever one sees “disease” and you will be on your way to submitting more winning solutions. The first part of the Epidemiologic Triad is the agent, which can be any biological, physical, or chemical entity associated with a disease. The host’s susceptibility to an agent is based on a variety of factors including personal characteristics such as age and sex, genetic predisposition, and personal behaviors engaged in by the host that may predispose the person to a given disease. The third component of the Epidemiologic Triad is the environment which includes those conditions that are not related to either the host or the agent, but do affect their interaction. Social, economic, and climatologic factors can be important in determining whether or not a disease develops.

For example, if one were trying to solve the Challenge of reducing motor vehicle accidents in a specific community, first mapping the different components that may be contributing to the problem would help one see where solutions may possibly be found. In this case, one could view the motor vehicle accident as the “disease.” The agent could be the car and different aspects of the car could include various safety features such as tire pressure and antilock brakes. The host is the driver, and different characteristics of the host could include age, driving history and sobriety of the driver. The environment could include road or weather conditions which could still have a strong influence on whether or not a motor vehicle accident will take place even if the car (agent) has great safety features and is being driven by someone (host) with a long history of driving and is sober.

To help the Solver in creating these maps, a variety of mind mapping tools are available, either as stand-alone programs or web-based applications. A list of mind mapping software, both free and proprietary can be found here.

In summary, applying the Epidemiologic Triad to more visually and systematically map a Challenge is a great way to develop more winning solutions. Try it out on your next attempt to solve a Challenge and see how new ideas and solutions can more effortlessly flow from the process. Good luck and have fun changing the world!

Harvey Arbesman, MD, MS
Marian Arbesman, PhD, OTR/R

Topics: Solvers

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