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Many people around the world have had training in Choosing By Advantages and utilize it on their projects and in their organizations. Unfortunately when we see examples of “CBA” decisions in the AEC industry, they are sometimes a distorted version of a CBA Tabular Method decision. Additionally, they often don’t follow the four principles and the specific language that CBA uses.

There are two main issues with this:

  1. There is significant variation in what people understand and portray versus what “CBA” actually is.
  2. More importantly, utilizing any CBA method incorrectly can lead to an unsound decision, which is exactly what we are trying to avoid with CBA to begin with.

Obviously, this is not the intention people have when they are trying to make a decision with CBA. However, good intentions are not enough to drive the right results. The Pivotal Principle of CBA is “Decisionmakers must learn and skillfully use sound methods.” Learning CBA, so that it can be skillfully used, is a little different than what we are used to doing with learning. It’s not hard, it’s just different. Let me tell you about my colossal failure with learning CBA.

My CBA learning failure

My first exposure to CBA was an afternoon training session at a conference. The training was referenced as a CBA training, however the focus of the session was the Tabular method. The instructors gave us a brief overview including the principles and definitions. Then they divided the room up into tables of 5-7 people and helped each table make a decision. It was enlightening and fun to experience making a decision with the other people at my table. What we did felt logical and made sense in my brain. After the conference, however, I returned to my day job and put “CBA” on a mental shelf in my brain.

Almost a year later, I attended a 3-day Sound Decisionmaking class led by Jim and Margaret Suhr. During this session I realized that what I had learned (and then forgotten) from the conference was only one method out of many in the system that make up CBA. I was eager and enthusiastic to learn more. I jumped right into being an engaged learner in the training session and l learned so much more about the entire system. At the end of those 3 days I thought to myself, “This stuff is great! It’s so logical! Why isn’t everyone using this?”

When I returned to work I didn't have any big decisions coming up, so I didn’t think I needed to worry about utilizing my new skill just yet. Over the next six months I would visit CBA briefly when a situation called for it, but largely left it on the shelf until my second CBA training with Jim and Margaret. This class was “Congruent Decisionmaking.” Jim started the class off with a pre-test, checking what learnings we retained from the first three-day training. Wouldn't you know it, I failed the test miserably. I was shocked! I was so engaged in the first class, and I knew that everything I learned had made so much sense. Why on earth didn’t I remember it?

Overcoming my CBA learning failure

After my CBA Congruent Decisionmaking course, I knew if I put what I learned on the mental shelf again, I would not succeed in remembering how to use it. This time I would couple my learning with action. I decided to make an intentional effort to practice a decision every single day using the Two-list method or the Simplified Two-list method of CBA. These are methods used for making a decision that only has two alternatives. They are small decisions, but they contain the steps that we need to learn in order to be effective in other CBA methods.

Over the next six months, I utilized these two methods religiously. Sometimes I would follow the results of my decisions, like selecting a book or a restaurant. Other times I knew what the answer had to be before practicing the methods (like staying with the in-laws or staying at a hotel), but I practiced them anyway, just to build muscle memory. Eventually, my daily practice slowed to a few times a week, but I put in enough practice that I aced the pretest Jim gave us at the start of the “Effective Decisionmaking” class, my third three-day class with him. I had cemented what I had learned by practicing so rigorously between classes.

Why do so many of us fail learning CBA?

As you may not be surprised to read, I’m not the only person that has had this type of experience. Based on feedback I’ve gotten from many others, I would suggest that the failure to retain the learning is far more common than not. Why is this? I refer to CBA as deceptively simple. Yes, CBA is a very logical process. It does make a lot of sense when you are in a training class. When we leave a training class, the years and years of experience we have making decisions with whatever methods we used previously are still embedded in the subconscious part of our brains. It takes over the control when we make decisions unless we intentionally replace it. It’s also worth noting that most of us would say we’ve had pretty decent success with the methods we’ve used in the past, so unlearning those methods does not tend to be a focus.

Have you ever tried to learn a second language? Or a third? Learning a new way of making decisions as an adult, after we already have ways of making decisions ingrained in our brains, is similar to trying to learn to use the word manzana instead of apple. Or trying to learn to use the word mela instead of manzana after you finally figured out how to use manzana appropriately! Just like learning a new language, it takes intentional practice to cement the new CBA methods into your brain.

In addition to the difficulty of unlearning old methods, our industry is always on the go and our projects have an intense sense of urgency. We don’t often feel that we have time to practice, especially practicing what feels so simple on decisions that our brains are used to making without much effort to begin with. We don’t fully understand the connection between practicing basics and being able to skillfully use the methods. This is especially true when we think we have a grasp of CBA from our initial training class or the books we read. Practicing the basics can feel elementary, which makes it even more difficult to prioritize in an already jam-packed schedule.

Unfortunately in the Design and Construction industry we most often see the Tabular method of CBA, sometimes accompanied by a money graph. We see Tabular CBA decisions such a majority of the time that many people in our industry think CBA and Tabular Method are one in the same. How and why would we learn about the other methods if we don’t know they exist? Tabular method decisions should be a small percentage of our overall utilization - especially when you recognize that on average, humans make 35,000 decisions every single day.

Starting with the basics

When learning any new skill we want to start with the basics. Imagine trying to do algebra without knowing arithmetic. That’s what we try to do when we jump right into the Tabular method, without taking time to practice Two-list and Simplified Two-list. These two methods of CBA contain the application of the CBA principles and definitions, without the complexity of methods like tabular and without the simplicity of Instant CBA.

The more we practice the basics, the more they become second nature to us, allowing us to learn and skillfully use the other methods more effectively.

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Rebecca Snelling coaches people, teams and organizations on Leadership and Lean Transformation with an emphasis on advancing culture. She started in the construction industry in 1996, and began coaching companies and teams in 2006 with a focus on applying Lean principles in various organizations and project types. She works with owners, architects, contractors, engineers and trade partners, as well as full project delivery teams. She coaches Leaders at all levels to integrate Lean thinking into their organization and develops Lean Coaches to effectively facilitate, train and coach others implementing Lean practices and behaviors.