Identifying Alternative Solutions IT Acquisition Templates 3 and 4
There is a difference between “alternative solutions” to a problem and “alternative sources” of contractors to implement the solution. Do not confuse the two. You are not ready at this point to issue a request for proposal from competing or “alternative sources.”
Identifying alternative solutions builds on the documented definition of the requirements for the solution. Its purpose is to identify the possible alternatives that could meet the requirements and thereby solve the problem. Organizations hope to find solutions that do not require an additional capital investment, but this cannot always be achieved.
There are many techniques for identifying alternative solutions, including brainstorming, the use of group support systems (GSSs), and investigating the solutions that leading organizations have adopted. Each technique involves the use of a group, rather than relying on a single individual. The group–or groups–can include experts, the intended users, executives, and other stakeholders. Leading organizations use integrated project teams (IPTs) to define requirements and perform other acquisition activities.
It is important to avoid personal biases and preferences. An IPT, which involves appropriately representatives from the affected components of the organization, must avoid being pressured into a pre-selected alternative, whether or not the pressure is intentional. This can happen when a senior executive is convinced that he or she knows the solution to the problem.
Summarizing Alternative Solutions (Template 3)
It is a best practice to identify at least three alternative solutions that will meet the requirements to solve the problem. Requiring a minimum of three alternative solutions forces the integrated project team to identify solutions that may not be obvious. It helps to prevent automatically adopting a “pre-selected” solution because of the prevailing biases. A meaningful investigation of alternative solutions can identify a solution that produces substantially superior results compared to what initially appeared to be the obvious solution. Individuals who have a pre-existing strong bias toward a specific solution are often not aware of other potential solutions, especially the latest, most innovative solutions.
Template 3, below, is used document, in summary form, alternative solutions that meet the requirements identified in Template 2. The first column of Template 3 gives the name of an alternative solution and the second column summarizes it. The “Objective” of the alternative solutions is entered at the top of Template 3.
Note: These templates are intended to help plan for acquiring IT services (and software and hardware as needed) from an external IT services contractor selected in open competition. The use of this and the other acquisition planning templates assume that the possibility of a solution using only internal resources or by making a commodity purchase from a product vendor have been analyzed and found to be not possible.Therefore, every alternative solution listed in Template 3 must require the use of an external IT services contractor because it has already been determined that one is required.
OBJECTIVE: Reduce the amount of time required to prepare graphics for proposals and to integrate graphics with the text
Name of Solution Alternative
Summary Description of Solution That Meets the Stated Requirements
Alternative Solution #1: Acquire an In-house Graphics
Hire a contractor to recommend, acquire, install, and integrate a graphics management and design tool or tool set and provide training, using a performance-based contract.
Alternative Solution #2: Outsource the Graphics Management Functions
Outsource the graphics creation, graphics management, and graphics-text integration functions to an expert graphics design and production company under a negotiated time and materials contract with incentives and penalties.
Alternative Solution #3: Use Software as a Service
Contract with a Software as a Service (SaaS) provider to obtain the functionality required via a Web connection
Alternative Solution #4: Acquire Expert Small
Graphics Arts Specialty Firm
Acquire a small graphics arts specialty firm with state-of- the-art technology and demonstrated required expertise, to merge with our organization and function as a support department.
[Name of Alternative Solution #5] [and so on, if there are additional alternative solutions]
IT Acquisition Confirmation
Each alternative solution described above requires the acquisition of IT services from an external IT service provider selected in open competition. [Note: Do not remove or change this statement.]
Template 3. Summarizing Alternative Solutions
Screening Alternative Solutions (Template 4)
There should be at least three alternative solutions identified, but there could be more. After the alternatives have been identified and documented, it is important to screen out the weakest ones, which is the purpose of Template 4.
The first criterion in the template, Responsiveness to the Requirements, is the most important. An alternative solution that looks good initially may, upon closer scrutiny, be found weak in responding to some of the requirements. The next criterion in the table is feasibility–that is, is it capable of being successfully carried out in this organization? The third criterion is enterprise architecture. Is it compatible with the present planned IT architecture? Does it support the business strategies and goals of the organization?
The fifth criterion, risks and constraints, is always important. If it is too risky, for example, management might consider it unacceptable. Constraints can be in many forms, such as it might take too long to implement, users are likely to resist it, it requires intensive training, it could negatively affect strategic partners, and so on. The sixth criterion is affordability. For example, can the organization afford it at this time? Will it take too long to recover the investment?
The seventh criterion, new opportunities, asks whether it opens up new opportunities that do not exist now. This would be an extra benefit of solving the problem with a given solution.
Template 4 is constructed to facilitate logical analysis of the alternatives. Specifically, each criterion in a column represents a hurdle that needs to be passed before the next criterion in the column to the right is considered. For example, if close examination of an alternative shows that it is not sufficiently responsive to the requirements, there is no need to evaluate it with the remaining criteria. Similarly, an alternative that is responsive to the requirements but not feasible for some reason would also be screened out.
Of course, there never (or rarely) is a perfect solution. Usually potential solutions must be modified perhaps several times before they are retained as acceptable alternative solutions to the problem. This template helps the IPT to weed out those alternatives that are clearly not viable and to determine how other alternatives can be improved through modification. You should end up with three alternative “finalists” that will move on to the next step for more refined analysis to identify the best solution to the problem.
An integrated project team (IPT), representative of the affected stakeholders, is usually the group that uses template 4 (or the equivalent) to rank order the alternative solutions. This helps to identify those that should be improved so they are more viable solutions. The last column on the right is used to make a ranking of the alternatives after any necessary improvements have been made. A “1” rating in this column means it is the highest ranking alternative solution. This ranking may change as a result of Activity 5, which looks closer at the risks involved and screens out all but the best two alternatives, and Activity 7 (economic analysis), which compares the best two financially and requires the IPT to make a decision on which is the one best alternative solution to recommend to the executive decision makers. .
Responsiveness to Requirements
Feasibility (Capable of
Risks and Constraints Affordability
Altern. #1 Acquire an In-
Can meet all requirements Feasible
Supports; no conflict
Risk of contractor bias toward unsuitable tool
Relatively low, affordable cost, assuming contractor installs off-the-shelf software
None beyond meeting the current objectives
Altern. #2 Outsource the Graphics Management Functions
.Can meet all requirements Feasible
Supports; no conflict
No experience with outsourcing business functions; potential loss of flexibility for meeting future needs
Likely greater initial cost, but affordable
On-going relationship may be source of expertise to exploit new opportunities
Use Software as a Service
meet all requirements
Depends on interface
requirements of the host
May not have the internal bandwith and hardware required to interface with the host; SaaS services are new and not fully tested
Possibly quick implementation with least initial and on-going cost, depending on the host’s interface requirements
Host may offer access to valuable new capabilities at relatively low cost
Acquire Expert Small Graphics Arts Specialty Firm
.Can meet all requirements
May not be feasible because
of large purchase cost, merger risks,
and difficulty of identifying a suitable small firm willing to be acquired.
Compatibility with enterprise
architecture would be an acquisition
May have substantial risk; integration of an acquired firm has
inherent risks (e.g., culture clash)
Likely highest initial cost, but
potentially fastest start-up of high- quality graphics
Could offer graphic services to other firms, resulting in a new income
[and so on]
Template 4. Analyzing Alternative Solutions
As you may have surmised, the results of the Template 4 analysis can be used to strengthen the best alternative solutions. The template may identify a correctable weakness in an otherwise good alternative solution. Correcting that weakness will strengthen that alternative solution.
Documenting Evaluations and Results
Templates 3 and 4 are summaries that are usually included in a report by the acquisition planning IPT to document its analysis of the problem, the solution alternatives considered, and its recommended solution alternative. Depending on the policies of the
organization, this report may be submitted after further analysis (beyond Template 4) has been completed and the recommendation solution has been determined.
How Management Detects Solution Selection Bias
A tactic used too frequently is to “know” the best solution in advance and then recommend it in a comparison with one or two weak alternatives. The idea is to cause the pre-selected solution to be chosen for funding. The problem with this tactic is that little thought is given to uncovering alternatives that could be far superior to the one that was pre-selected. Whenever one alternative looks strong and the other two look a little too weak, it raises the question of whether or not this was a pre-selected solution. Acquisition teams can undermine their own credibility with senior management by unintentionally or intentionally recommending a solution that appears pre-selected. It can motivate the decision makers to reject or ignore the IPT’s recommendation and to initiate other steps to identify the best solution. Ideally, at least two of the final alternatives will be strong, but they will have different strengths and different weaknesses. A case can then be made for recommending the one that on balance is the stronger of the two in terms of meeting the organization’s needs.
* * *