Decision-making can be a puzzling task, like approaching a street sign pointing in different directions. Even after a technology or business strategy decision has been implemented, the outcomes are never certain. There will be instances where decisions work, but inevitably, decisions fail as well. The key to overcoming the challenge of making beneficial and masterful decisions is to keep from insistent dwelling on failure itself and to examine the alternatives throughout the entire decision-making process. In systems engineering, identifying alternatives involves the assessment of the various solutions to a problem. Establishing an effective framework for the analysis of alternatives requires knowledge of the market, the stakeholders, the current system in place, and the risks. In doing so, decision-makers can reduce the risk as much as possible and establish feasible and cost-effective solutions. 

Proper planning and research are the foundation of alternative analysis. The first step is to establish the problem and define the decisions that will be made. The client may come to you with an initial problem or a problem with a solution that has already been implemented. Apart from the system itself, stakeholders and decision-makers may have disagreements amongst themselves. Planning involves comprehensive research and meetings with team members and stakeholders to outline objectives, designate efforts, and estimate costs. Evaluating the time and resources available is important to ensure that the project itself can be carried out. These initial steps give the project direction and set goals for completion.

Many decision-makers do not know where to start when gathering information about the market. One approach is to study the competition: research if competitors have encountered a comparable problem in the past and learn from their successes and failures. Case studies are excellent sources of information, because they are real-world examples of implemented solutions.  Alternatively, reaching out to the consumers may be equally as effective. Surveys and focus groups are a direct method of obtaining feedback on past projects or proposals for new technologies. An external perspective may be the key to a solution.

Deciding on alternatives should be a team effort to incorporate a variety of perspectives. Having an open discussion or multiple “brainstorming sessions” with team members may highlight options not considered before. This allows for input from legal, economic, and technological perspectives as well as various levels of experience. The aim of identifying alternatives could be to resolve a problem with an initially proposed decision or simply have a backup plan in case a decision goes awry. These may include modification, elimination, developing a new system, delaying a decision, or maintaining the “status quo”- keeping the current system in place. Depending on the given situation, some alternatives may be more beneficial than others. While adjusting the system, removing a part of the system, or creating a new system altogether may seem more progressive, sometimes delaying the decision or keeping the system in place may be the “right” alternative at the moment. Decisions being delayed if implemented with set goals, allows for more time to research and identify the correct approach to an issue. Keeping the status quo is a method that allows for continued experimentation with the current system, considering modifications later on.

There may be many more alternatives available than the ones detailed above. It is important to evaluate multiple alternatives, because the decision-making process may require more than one. There must be set criteria to evaluate each alternative and compare them to one another. This will provide a method of elimination for ineffective alternatives. This process can be time-consuming but is worthwhile in the end. According to a report on the Analysis of Alternatives in Defense Acquisitions from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), “programs that considered a broad range of alternatives tended to have better cost and schedule outcomes than the programs that looked at a narrow scope of alternatives” [1]. A robust assessment of alternatives will help to develop working solutions better fit to the client’s needs.

The presentation of results to stakeholders and decision-makers is an opportunity to showcase the information generated so far. Whether the presentation is a PowerPoint, a report, an infographic, or an open discussion, presenting the results of the alternatives analysis as clearly, consistently, and accurately as possible is the priority. This will let major stakeholders know how the project is going and if more resources are needed. The team must also provide a detailed analysis of the systematic and engineering risks. This will help plan for future implementation, make accurate cost estimates, and ensure that the project is completed on schedule. Direct and honest communication with stakeholders throughout the process will result in a better outcome.

Meticulously researching the contexts of the problem, analyzing and comparing various alternatives, and consulting the findings will help foster successful solutions. It may take time to identify the correct alternatives and it may take multiple trials to implement them. However, the key to establishing successful alternatives is organization and a continued effort toward a specific goal. If the time frame, team, and costs are planned in detail, the decision-making process will become much more manageable.


[1]  “Defense Acquisitions:  Many Analyses of Alternatives Have Not Provided a Robust Assessment of Weapon System Options,” United States Government Accountability Office, Report to the Chairman, Subcommittee on National Security and Foreign Affairs, Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, House of Representatives, Sep. 2009.


“Analyses of Alternatives,” The MITRE Corporation, Aug. 2013.

S. Bauer, “The Art of Decision Making – Part 4: Identifying Alternatives,” Product Anonymous, 15-Sep-2013.