Decades of research — sponsored by the U.S. Forest Service, in cooperation with Utah State University — led to the discovery that sound methods of decisionmaking do not base decisions on the importance of factors, criteria, goals, roles, objectives, categories, attributes, advantages and disadvantages, or pros and cons. Instead, sound methods base decisions on the importance of advantages. To help people remember this principle, "Choosing By Advantages" is the name we selected for the set of decisionmaking concepts and methods that are being taught by the Institute for Decision Innovations, Inc. Other names that could have been selected include “Making Choices Correctly and Peacefully” and “Facts-Based Decisionmaking."

In the same way that a car is not a tire or a set of tires, Choosing By Advantages (CBA) is not a decisionmaking method or a set of decisionmaking methods. It is much more. It is a decisionmaking system. The CBA system is replacing the collection of non-system methods that are being used today ─ where, in many cases, each method has its own set of definitions, its own models of the decisionmaking process, and its own set of principles.

In contrast, the CBA system includes a wide variety of decisionmaking tools, techniques, and methods that are unified by just one set of definitions, models, and principles. As follows, the principles are central. The definitions and models help us to explain the principles; the methods enable us to apply the principles.

Because CBA is a system (in contrast with the collection of non-system methods), it simplifies and clarifies the art of decisionmaking. And because the CBA methods are the sound methods, they produce better decisions ─ sometimes, much better.

Examples of CBA Definitions

The essential decisionmaking terms are much more precisely defined in the CBA vocabulary (which includes the sound-decisionmaking vocabulary) than in common usage. For example, the terms factor, criterion, attribute, and advantage are often used interchangeably in common usage, but in the CBA vocabulary they are never used interchangeably.

By precisely using the CBA definitions (which are based on and consistent with the applicable dictionary definitions), those who participate in the decisionmaking process can avoid a large number of critical mistakes that are caused by faulty patterns of thought and speech. To illustrate the logic and simplicity of the CBA vocabulary, following are the CBA definitions of the terms attribute and advantage:

An example that is often used in CBA workshops to illustrate these definitions is the choice between two canoes: Canoe C and Canoe K. In the canoe-weight factor, the attribute of C is 65 Pounds. In this same factor, the attribute of K is 75 Pounds.

In this factor, the stakeholders (those who will be using the canoe) established the following criterion: Lighter is better.

After they have learned the two attributes and the one criterion, the workshop participants are asked, "Given that the stakeholders would prefer the lighter canoe-weight (but not necessarily the lighter canoe, because advantages in other factors will need to be considered), which canoe has the advantage in weight?" Of course, the participants say that Canoe C has the advantage in this factor. This sets the stage for the following series of questions and answers:

Q: How large is the advantage of C, compared with K?
A: The participants nearly always give the following correct answer: 10 Pounds.

Q: Which canoe has the disadvantage in weight?
A: Canoe K.

Q: How large is the disadvantage of K, compared with C?
A: The participants nearly always give the same correct answer: 10 Pounds.

Notice that the 10-pound disadvantage of K is exactly the same 10 pounds as the 10-pound advantage of C.

The Fundamental Rule of Sound Decisionmaking

In 1981, the CBA system came to life when it was discovered and verified that, without exception, a disadvantage of one alternative is an advantage of another alternative. Therefore, when decisionmakers have listed the advantages of each alternative, they have listed the disadvantages (because advantages are disadvantages). Listing them again, as disadvantages, would be double-counting. This discovery brought to light the fundamental rule of sound decisionmaking:

Decisions must be based on the importance of advantages.

In CBA workshops, to illustrate the fundamental rule and to show that Choosing By Advantages is much simpler and produces better decisions than Choosing By Advantages and Disadvantages, colored blocks of wood are often used to represent two sets of advantages in a hypothetical canoe decision: the choice between Canoe L and Canoe R. They also represent the decisionmaker's viewpoint about the importance of each advantage (the tallness of each block represents the importance of the advantage that it represents).

In the following picture, the three blocks on the left represent the advantages of Canoe L, while the two blocks on the right represent the advantages of Canoe R. As shown by the two stacks of blocks, the total importance of the advantages of Canoe R is greater than the total importance of the advantages of Canoe L. Therefore, Canoe R is the preferred alternative, even though it has fewer advantages.


CBA does not leave out the disadvantages of the alternatives. In the above picture, for example, the blocks on the left represent the advantages of Alternative L. At the same time, these same blocks represent the disadvantages of Alternative R. Similarly, the blocks on the right represent the disadvantages of L.

Remember: A disadvantage of one alternative is an advantage of another alternative, and there are no exceptions.

Many educators have been and still are teaching methods of decisionmaking that base decisions on the advantages and the disadvantages of each alternative. But, as demonstrated by the canoe decision, and as demonstrated by the two stacks of blocks, such methods cause (or encourage) double-counting. Surprisingly, they also cause (or encourage) omissions, distortions, and other critical mistakes. Therefore, they do not qualify as sound methods.

Many educators have also been and still are teaching methods that assign numerical weights, ratings, or scores to factors, criteria, objectives, goals, roles, categories, or attributes (if you can name it, someone is probably teaching it). But, as demonstrated by decades of research and as thoroughly explained in CBA workshops, these methods do not qualify as sound methods. Why not? Because it is impossible to assign valid numerical weights, ratings, or scores to factors, criteria, and so forth. When numerical weights must be assigned, they must be assigned to advantages.

Now that CBA is available, it is no longer necessary for parents, teachers, seminar instructors, leaders in organizations, and others who are involved in the educational process to be teaching unsound methods to their children, their students, and their employees. They now have the opportunity (and the responsibility) to teach sound methods of decisionmaking (those that apply the fundamental rule of sound decisionmaking).

Parents, children, teachers, and students (as well as executives, leaders, and front line employees) need to memorize the fundamental rule of sound decisionmaking. And, they need to learn how to apply this rule for all the types of decisions that they need to make, including their day-to-day and minute-to-minute decisions. Here, again, is the fundamental rule:

Decisions must be based on the importance of advantages.

A Brief History of the Fundamental Rule

In 1887, Arthur M. Wellington, a railroad economist, wrote the following version of the fundamental rule (in The Economic Theory of the Location of Railways): "No increase of expenditure over the unavoidable minimum is expedient or justifiable, however great the probable profits and value of an enterprise as a whole, unless the INCREASE can with reasonable certainty be counted on to be, in itself, a profitable investment." (This was a major milestone in the development of the CBA system.)

Now, think about this: An increase is a difference. In 1938, therefore, Eugene L. Grant wrote the following version of the rule (in Principles of Engineering Economy): "It is prospective differences between alternatives which are relevant to their comparison." (This was another major milestone in the development of CBA.)

In 1970, in the fifth edition of Principles of Engineering Economy, Grant and Ireson added the word "only" to the rule. They said, "It is only prospective differences among alternatives that are relevant in their comparison." They also said, "Over the years, many published formulas for the solution of problems . . . have given dangerously misleading guidance to decision makers because the authors of the formulas have not recognized this concept." And, it is the same today. That is, very few analysts and very few decisionmakers realize that sound methods base decisions on the differences among the alternatives.

Even fewer realize that sound methods base decisions on the importance of advantages.

Another milestone was the realization that all decisions are value laden. That is, they depend on the viewpoints of decisionmakers. Therefore, in addition to clearly identifying the differences among the alternatives, decisionmakers must decide the relative importance of each difference. Furthermore, although this is a subjective activity, they must correctly decide the importance of each difference. They must decide with care and precision.

Building on the achievements of Wellington, Grant, Ireson, and many others, a long search for sound, practical methods that correctly base decisions on the importance of differences eventually produced the CBA system. From 1959 until 1962, the development of CBA was in the California Department of Water Resources. From 1962 until 1990, it was in the U.S. Forest Service, with assistance from many individuals and several organizations ─ including, the University of Michigan, Utah State University, and others.

CBA was initially developed for making difficult, complex, controversial resource management decisions, which is why the Forest Service supported its development. However, numerous practical applications have demonstrated that everyone needs to learn and use CBA (not just resource managers). Also, virtually all types of decisions call for CBA. Since 1991, therefore, the further development of the CBA system, especially the CBA training process, has been in the Institute for Decision Innovations, Inc. (DBA: Decision Innovations).

The Mission of Decision Innovations

Following is the mission of the Institute for Decision Innovations: Improving the quality of life by helping individuals and organizations make better choices, by advancing the art of decisionmaking through research, education, and consultation.

The art of decisionmaking is a broad field of study, too broad to be studied all at the same time. Therefore, CBA organizes the art of decisionmaking into three overlapping areas, as follows:

CBA methods are now being used by many individuals, families, and organizations for a wide variety of decisions (different types of decisions call for different CBA methods). For example, the National Park Service is using CBA to set local, regional, and national priorities among construction project proposals. As another example, CBA was successfully used by an interdisciplinary, multi-agency team in the selection of a potentially controversial highway location for the 2002 Winter Olympics. And, there are many other examples.

In example after example where CBA has been used correctly, participants with differing values and preferences have been able to work together as a decisionmaking team. They have been able to make a sound decision without dysfunctional conflict. When the traditional methods are used, they often produce power struggles. But when CBA is used correctly, decisionmaking becomes an artistic performance.