Step 3: Alternatives


A range of creative policy or management alternatives designed to address the objectives is developed. Alternatives should reflect substantially different approaches to the problem or different priorities across objectives, and should present decision makers with real options and choices.

Good solutions are not possible without good alternatives. Yet we often move to a single solution, without truly exploring distinct and creative alternatives. Technical teams take on the task of delivering “recommendations” to decision makers. But often these recommendations encompass value judgments that are better made by decision makers. Usually, what decision makers need is good information about a small, carefully thought out set of alternatives – their consequences, key differences (trade-offs) in their consequences, and the response of key stakeholders with respect to these trade-offs. Generating good alternatives is a source of important insights both from a technical perspective and a values perspective.

Most often, an alternative is not a single action, but a set of actions – a ‘portfolio’ , “strategy”, or ‘package’ of individual elements that together provide a comprehensive approach to the decision situation.

In this section we explore:

  • The characteristics of good alternatives
  • Generating alternatives from objectives and criteria
  • Screening
  • Developing strategies or portfolios
  • Refining

Characteristics of good alternatives

Developing good alternatives is an iterative task. Initially, the task is to generate a range of creative alternatives. These alternatives are carefully evaluated technically, in terms of their estimated consequences. They are also evaluated deliberatively, in terms of their relative desirability. New alternatives are generated, joint gains are found and the key trade-offs and uncertainties are highlighted. By the time alternatives are presented to decision makers, they should be:

  • Value-Focused, meaning that they are explicitly designed to address the fundamental values or ends of the decision – the “things that matter” or “felt needs”, as defined by the objectives and the evaluation criteria;
  • Technically Sound, meaning that in developing alternatives for achieving the objectives, the project team has drawn on the best available information about cause and effect relationships and has designed creative and diverse alternatives based on sound analysis;
  • Clearly and Consistently Defined, meaning that all alternatives are defined to a sufficient and consistent level of detail using logically consistent assumptions, and that a base case against which all alternatives can be compared has been clearly established;
  • Small in number and high in quality, meaning that poor (dominated) alternatives have been eliminated and those remaining have been iteratively refined to incorporate new ideas and joint gains;
  • Comprehensive and mutually exclusive, meaning that individual elements or components of a strategy are combined into complete packages, and that the packages are directly comparable;
  • Able to expose fundamental trade-offs, meaning that they emphasize rather than hide difficult but unavoidable value-based trade-offs and present real choices for decision makers;
  • Developed collaboratively with the people most affected, because difficult trade-offs are easier to make and to accept when people believe that a thorough search for good alternatives has been conducted and that the best alternatives are on the table.

Key Ideas

  • First, you must orient your group to the problem
  • Second, your group must specify what matters in the decision
  • Third, your group must decide how to evaluate whether or not potential solutions can achieve the objectives
  • Fourth, your group will create a variety of alternatives for decision makers to consider
  • An alternative is a set of actions providing a comprehensive approach to the decision problem
  • Good alternatives share a number of characteristics