How to generate the best list of solution options

Most business case fall short when generating a long list of options.

Let us consider this issue from three perspectives.

Firstly clarify the problem or opportunity. Business Cases are often constrained by what I call ‘in the box’ thinking. 

The constraints include funding availability, political and community expectations, published strategies or plans, or constrained by the charter of the unit, division or agency running the project – it is difficult to go beyond the jurisdictional silo. 

For example traffic congestion caused by a long commute to employment may be best addressed by creating more local employment and hence increase travel containment, but this is generally outside the scope of a transport agency.

And there is no point looking to develop a long list of options that won’t get past decision makers.

By clarifying the problem or opportunity it is useful to use a framework – such as analysing challenges, opportunities and risk (or use a SWOT analysis). 

This requires that the problem or opportunity has been carefully defined, considering cause and effect – which is best analysed about using a ‘5 Whys’ analysis, keep asking ‘why’ until the root cause has been identified.

Having carefully defined the problem or opportunity then an option is a ‘do something’ to address that problem or opportunity. But beware of ‘problem-solution thinking’ or jumping to a solution without adequately exploring all the practical solution options.

Secondly, generate a long list. This can be done by an individual but best by a group, including key stakeholders where possible, to get the broadest range of solutions. Don’t dismiss any suggestion to start with, allow a wide a range as possible before culling down to a reasonable list.

You can use a framework such as outlined in Australian Transport Assessment and Planning Guidelines (ATAP) F3 Options Generation and Assessment, which outlines six components: regulatory reform, land use reform, better use reform, governance reform, service reform and capital investment. 

This model has been picked up by Infrastructure Australia in their recently released (July 2021) Stage 2 Assessment Framework: Identifying and Analysing Options.

The challenge however, is the ‘in the box’ constraints referred to earlier, which may preclude many of the ‘reform’ options. At least look to see what can be included in packaging up components.

Obviously there can be infinite variations, so be careful not to go down a rabbit hole and explore more and more minor variations. There will be an opportunity once the business case has been approved in the detailed design phase to explore enhancements.

Infrastructure Australia also recommends that “When developing a long list of options, you should take into account possible future scenarios or conditions to identify options that improve sustainability and resilience outcomes.”

Thirdly undertake a high level assessment of the options generated to compile the long list. This means culling  the impractical or infeasible options.

You can use a Strategic Merit test (as per ATAP F3) considering an option’s alignment with goals, objectives and strategic plans.

Determine assessment criteria to distil the options down to a reasonable long list. Some suggested criteria are:

  • Strategic fit – does the option align with strategic priorities, is there a case for change, does it align with sustainability and resilience strategies
  • Value for money – does the option represent value for money for the proposed  investment 
  • Affordability – is there funding in the foreseeable future, does the investment represent value compared to other priorities 
  • Achievability – can the option be delivered successfully, what is the capability and capacity to deliver

This will mean getting down to a robust long list, discarding this that don’t meet the criteria, but you don’t want an extensive list, maybe as few as five to seven options on the long list is reasonable. It is also important to document the process of elimination.

So in summary:

  1. Clarify the problem or opportunity
  2. Generate a long list of potential solutions
  3. Undertake a high level assessment to generate a robust long list.

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1 thought on “How to generate the best list of solution options”

  1. Hi Phil.
    Like your work, and agree that many projects fall short of the best options.
    “options that won’t get past decision makers.” may need to directly address the decision makers in order to include the best options. Have found it necessary to join the political party in opposition (because only they have time to listen) and propose a suitable policy. This is necessary to avoid disruptive options from making investments stranded. The issue is so common that I have three policy motions in train.
    Kindest regards
    John Cleeland

    Reply

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