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Option Identification and Evaluation

By
Cate Malek

Based on a longer essay on Option Identification, written by Brad Spangler for the Intractable Conflict Knowledge Base Project

Updated May 2013

 

Definition:

Option identification is the process of brainstorming as many creative approaches to a conflict as possible. Evaluation, in this context, considers each option in turn to determine which tactic(s) and strategy should be used to address -- and hopefully resolve -- a particular dispute.

Users:

Anyone who is thinking of trying to resolve a conflict or who is already involved in a conflict resolution process.

Description:

Option identification is an essential step in the conflict resolution process.  To respond most effectively, disputants should examine ALL options that could potentially advance their interests, not just the most obvious solution or the one(s) that first come to mind. While the term "option identification" is most often thought of in terms of substantive options, it also applies to procedural options as well.  In other words, at the beginning of a conflict, parties must decide whether to engage in the conflict or not.  If they decide to engage, they must examine the options regarding how to engage (e.g., negotiation, mediation, arbitration, lawsuit, etc). If things go in an unexpected way, option identification and evaluation may need to be repeated, so disputants can figure out what to do next, given the changed conditions.

How Do Parties Go About Identifying Options?

The goal is to come up with as many reasonable alternatives as possible. This can be done unilaterally (meaning each side alone), bi-laterally, or multi-laterally (disputants working together). Third parties can help with this process, which is a standard step in mediation or facilitated consensus-building processes

There are several procedures for doing this, but they all share common characteristics:

  1. Everyone present is encouraged to participate. This changes the discussion from a zero-sum conversation (my way versus your way) to a multi-sided one.
  2. Parties separate generating options from evaluating them. This ensures that options will not be rejected prematurely.
  3. Discussions focus on the issue and the decision making process, not on the parties themselves.
  4. Most importantly, the parties think creatively.

Option Evaluation

After options are identified, the parties must then evaluate them to see which have the most potential. This is done by "costing," the process of analyzing the costs and benefits of different conflict resolution options. Early-stage costing assesses whether the conflict is worth pursuing and what strategy should be used. In latter-stage costing, parties examine how much each option is likely to cost (both in monetary and non-monetary terms) and what the benefits are likely to be. Often, parties will underestimate the costs and overestimate their potential for success. This leads them to pursue ineffective strategies. To prevent this, third parties often ask probing questions in an effort to force the parties to justify their assessments and develop a more realistic option evaluation.

BATNAs

Part of costing involves identifying and, when possible, improving one's "BATNA" -- the "Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement. " This is the standard against which any proposed agreement should be measured. If a negotiated settlement is reached, parties must then compare that settlement to their BATNA. If the proposed agreement is better than their BATNA, then they should accept it. If the agreement is not better than their BATNA, then they should reopen negotiations, or pursue the BATNA.

Good negotiators know when their opponent is desperate to settle and they may then push harder, demanding more. If the opponent has many options outside of negotiation (in other words, a good BATNA), they are likely to get more concessions from the other side.

The allure of the BATNA often leads to last-minute breakdowns in negotiations. Disputants can negotiate for months or even years, finally developing an agreement that they think is acceptable to all. But then at the end, all the parties must take a hard look at the final outcome and decide: "is this better than all of my alternatives?" Only if all the parties say "yes," can the agreement be finalized.

Sometimes parties will reject a settlement because they have an unrealistically positive image of their BATNA. While sometimes unavoidable, the mediator or opposing party can sometimes use reality-testing questions to force the reluctant party to re-examine their BATNA to determine if it really is feasible and better than the negotiated settlement. Questions such as "okay, well, what will happen if you do that?" "How much will that cost?" "How long will it take?" "Are you certain of the outcome?" Wouldn't a certain outcome (promised by a negotiated settlement) be worth more?

Example:

Denver, like many other western cities, is in frequent need of new water supplies to keep up with growth. Every ten years or so, a dam is proposed to develop new water storage capacity. And every time a dam is proposed, opponents surface. People against growth, people against new development, and people who simply don't want the dam "in their backyards" typically oppose the dam's construction. Before any dam can be built, an environmental impact statement must be prepared which examines the proposed dam and all the available options from "do nothing" to "conserve more" to putting the dam somewhere else.

The costs and benefits of each option are examined, public hearings are held, and eventually a decision is made--either by a consensus-building process, or by administrative fiat. (If the decision is made by administrative fiat, it is often challenged in court.) The EIS option identification and evaluation process is very similar to the process used in any other conflict. The parties examine all the alternatives, assess their relative costs and benefits, and make a decision about which to pursue based on that assessment.

Applications:

Option identification and evaluation is necessary in any dispute that is at all involved or difficult to resolve. Sometimes, in simple cases, it is done pretty much unconsciously, "on the fly." But in more complicated cases that last awhile, this process is almost always necessary, not only at the beginning but at several stages throughout the conflict.

Links to Related Articles:

BATNA
Conflict Assessment
Collaborative Problem Solving and Consensus Building
Facilitation
Mediation

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