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“Choosing By Advantages (CBA) is not an individual tool or technique. CBA is a decision-making system. It is also a decision making process, not just a step in the process. The CBA system includes definitions, models, and principles, in addition to tools, techniques, and methods of decision-making. The principles are central. The definitions and models help explain the principles, and the methods apply the principles. The CBA system includes methods for virtually all types of money and non-money decisions, from the simplest to the most complex. Sound decision making is the foundation of the CBA system.” Jim Suhr

Jim Suhr is the creator, or as he would say discoverer, of the CBA System. Jim has been a farmer, a school teacher, spent time in the US Army, and worked for the US Forest Service. He is a civil engineer with graduate studies in engineering, economics, ecology, and organizational behavior. He is the founder and a researcher for the Institute for Decision Innovations. He discovered Choosing By Advantages, along with some others, while he was working for the US Forest Service.

At the core of the system is sound decision making, which includes the methods we currently see used in our industry.

Sound decision making has four cornerstone principles:

  • The Pivotal Principle – decision-makers must learn and skillfully use sound methods
  • The Fundamental Rule of Sound Decision-Making – decisions must be based on the importance of advantages
  • The Anchoring Principle – decisions must be anchored to relevant facts
  • The Methods Principle – different types of decisions call for different sound methods of decision-making

When CBA is done well, it results in collaboratively made, sound decisions that have concise and transparent documentation. This documentation shows how and why the decision was made the way it was. This is helpful when sharing the decision with others, the rationale can be clearly understood. It is also helpful when there is new information or a new stakeholder, and the decision needs to be revisited or updated.

CBA includes standard language that is used throughout. The language is not necessarily anything that is ‘unfamiliar’ to people, but is definitely concisely and consistently used.

  • Alternative - People, things, or plans from which one is to be chosen are called alternatives. They are also called options. *in careful usage they are never called choices.
  • Attribute - A characteristic, quality or consequence of one alternative (one person, one thing, or one plan) is called an attribute. *the key word is one.
  • Factor - Elements or parts of a decision. Factors contain data that are required for making a decision.
  • Criterion - A standard, rule, or test on which a judgment or decision can be based is called a criterion. A criterion is a decision that guides further decision making (criteria is plural)
  • Advantage - An advantage is a benefit, gain, betterment, or improvement. It is a difference between the attributes of two alternatives. *The key is two.

Here is a simple example that puts these definitions and principles into some context.

I will be driving to the dentist office tomorrow. I am considering only 2 alternatives - driving via the highway or driving through the suburbs. These alternatives have the following attributes:

Alternative Driving via Highway
Attribute 16 miles
Attribute 19 minutes

Alternative Driving via Suburbs
Attribute 9.9 miles
Attribute 26 minutes

The only criterion I have is that I would like to get there as quickly as possible. I don’t care how many miles I drive to get there, as long as it’s the quickest route. This means the factor of time will play into my decision, but the factor of mileage will not. Given the data above, the advantage is that driving via the highway is 7 minutes shorter, and therefore I will take the highway.

Now, taking that same information and I learned there is traffic on the highway and the attribute in the factor of time was now 30 minutes instead of 19, the advantage would be “4 minutes faster” for driving via the suburbs (alternative).

Methods Matter

This is the cause and effect model of CBA. The model shows that our outcomes are largely caused by the actions we take. Our actions, of course, are largely caused by the decisions we make. We make the decisions we do based on the methods we use. If we want to improve our outcomes, we need to change our actions. In order to do that effectively, we’ll want to change the decisions we make, and in order to do that, we’ll want to improve our methods.

What’s wrong with our current Methods?

For starters, we often don’t follow formal decisionmaking methods to begin with! Think about it….35,000 decisions in a day. How many of those have you paused to be intentional around? What methods are you using for yourself? What about with your teams? Even the decisions we make in the workplace don’t often follow a standard method. Too often in the workplace we see decisions being made via:

  • Historical
    • We do the same thing we did last time because it worked out ok
    • We make a different decision than we did last time because last time it didn’t work out ok
  • Conversations
    • The person with the loudest voice or the most tenacity makes a decision
    • The highest ranking person in the conversation makes a decision
    • Take a vote - and therefore consider everyone’s opinion and biases equal to each others, even if we did include data in the decision
  • Siloed
    • A well-intentioned person makes a decision without involving other stakeholders because they think they are saving other people time
    • A less-than-well-intentioned person makes a decision without involving other stakeholders because they don’t want another perspective

At the end of the day, many workplace decisions end up being based on a gut reaction, instinct, intuition, and with minimal data. The decisions that get made methodically typically follow unsound decisionmaking methods like:

  • Weighting Rating and Calculating
  • Pros and Cons
  • Advantages versus Disadvantages

The more formal methods that we have historically used for decision making have a variety of challenges that make them unsound.

Some of these methods…. Why that’s unsound…
Weigh factors Factors don’t acknowledge any difference between 2 alternatives. For example, how can you weigh “time” in the example decision soundly? What if time is 26 minutes on the highway or via the suburbs? What if time on the highway is 19 minutes and its 3 hours through the suburbs? The variety in possibilities makes it unsound to weigh factors.
Double count If one route is 7 minutes shorter than the other it is automatically 7 minutes longer. If you count 7 minutes shorter AND 7 minutes longer you are counting 14 minutes….and yet there is only a 7 minute difference, not 14.
Include negativity bias The psychology of the human brain will place more importance on the disadvantage of 7 minutes longer than it will place on the advantage of 7 minutes shorter. This makes methods that use “Disadvantages and Advantages” or “Positives” and “Negatives” unsound.

A sound decision will:

  • Be based on facts and data rather than generalizations
  • Include both subjective and objective data
  • Include criteria that is based on the end users needs and wants
  • Have alignment on criteria with all stakeholders
  • Have stakeholder contribution and buy-in
  • Will be the best decision at the time with the information available

That is a high level overview of the basics of Choosing By Advantages. In my next post, I’ll explore some of the challenges we see in our industry around learning and applying CBA.

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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.