Every solution or strategy has different costs and benefits associated with it. The process of comparing costs and benefits of alternative solutions is called a cost-benefit analysis. The best solution is the one that has least cost and most benefit.
The price of implementing a solution is its cost. There are different types of costs, and you may classify them according to whether you incur them before (developmental costs), during (installation costs), or after (maintenance costs) you implement the solution.
Not all costs involve money. You can classify additional types of costs into such categories as time, effort, personnel, supplies, learning, morale, discomfort, and lost opportunities.
You can also classify costs into direct and indirect categories. For example, the cost of conducting a training workshop is a direct cost. The working time lost by the employees attending the workshop is an indirect cost.
Benefits are positive outcomes of implementing a solution. You can classify benefits into immediate profits and future profits.
In addition to financial benefits, you have additional benefits that be classified as time saving, effort saving, improved productivity, workforce reduction, increased competencies, improved morale, improvement in other psychological factors, and increased opportunities.
In real life, you are often forced to compare apples and oranges such as when you decide which fruit to take with you when you visit your niece in the hospital. You may actually end up comparing apples, oranges, coloring books, balloons, and video games--and end up taking a gallon of ice cream.
Comparisons among unrelated alternatives is a fact of life in the workplace. Here are some examples:
- You are about to run out of funds. How do you reduce costs: downsize the team, ask everyone take a pay cut, ask for additional funds, or take a loan?
- You can hire only one consultant to help you establish corporate policy on sexual harassment. Who should you hire: lawyer, communication specialist, human performance technologist, or cultural anthropologist?
Apples and Oranges enables the participants to systematically and objectively select the best item among several alternatives that do not share common features. While the game requires participation from all players, it has an interesting twist: At the end of the game you do not identify the winning player, but the winning idea.
To identify and discuss the costs and benefits of alternative solutions and to select the best alternative.
- Minimum: 3
- Maximum: Any number
- Best: 5 to 10.
30 minutes to 2 hours.
Exact time requirement depends on the number of alternatives, number of participants, diversity among participants, number of people affected by the decision, and the potential impact of making a wrong decision.
Equipment and Supplies
- Flip chart
Draw a comparison table. Do this on the flip chart. The number of rows and columns in the table should equal the number of alternatives. For example, if you have only three alternatives to choose from, you will use a 3 x 3 table. Label the columns and the rows with the same set of letters (A, B, C, and so on). Label each box inside the matrix with two letters, the first one identifying the column and the second one identifying the row. Leave the boxes along the diagonal that has the same row and column labels (A-A, B-B, and so on) blank. The boxes above this diagonal are used for comparison of costs; the boxes below the diagonal, for comparison of benefits. During the game, you will circle the letter identifying the lower-cost or the higher-benefit alternative.
Brief the players. Explain why you are choosing the best alternative among different solutions. List the alternatives on a flip chart, labeling them A, B, C, and so on. Briefly describe the key features of each alternative.
A committee has come up with several ideas for solving the parking problem in your downtown office. You have reduced these ideas to five alternatives and listed them on a flip chart:
A. Build a multilevel parking lot
B. Encourage employees to car pool
C. Schedule staggered working hours
D. Run a corporate shuttle bus service
E. Support telecommuting
Work on the top half of the comparison table to identify alternatives in terms of their relative costs.
Identify cost factors. Briefly explain different types of costs such as development cost, purchase cost, installation cost, maintenance cost, and upgrade cost. Give examples of costs associated with money, time, personnel, and psychological factors. Ask participants to specify the types of costs associated with different alternatives.
Using Alternative A (building a multilevel parking lot), you present these sample costs:
- Development cost: cost of building the parking lot
- Purchase cost: price of parking meters
- Installation cost: cost of setting up parking meters
- Maintenance costs: cleaning the parking lot and collecting money from the meters
- Upgrade cost: replacing parking meters with new models that accept credit cards
You also point out that all these costs incorporate time, money, and people. As a sample psychological (emotional) cost, you point out that many employees may be upset by cutting down beautiful trees to build an ugly parking lot.
Relate costs to different items. Ask the participants to discuss the types of costs associated with each alternative and whether each of these costs is low, medium, or high.
In discussing telecommuting as an alternative, the participants identify a high psychological cost associated with employees missing opportunities for socializing with their co-workers around water coolers. Also telecommuting at home may make it easier for some employees to procrastinate and to experience additional stress with tight deadlines.
Compare costs of paired alternatives. Display the comparison table on the flip chart. Point out that the boxes along one of the diagonals are blank. Explain that the boxes above this diagonal are for cost comparisons. Each box contains two alternatives and every alternative is paired with every other alternative. Identify the box labeled A vs. B and ask the participants to discuss the relative costs of the two alternatives.
The participants compare the costs of building a multilevel parking lot with the costs of encouraging car pooling.
Select the lower-cost alternative. Ask the participants to select the lower-cost alternative. If there is disagreement, encourage participants to talk to each other until they reach consensus. Circle the appropriate letter in the box to indicate the lower-cost alternative.
Participants quickly decide that encouraging car pooling is definitely less costly than building a multilevel parking lot. So, you circle letter “B” in this box.
Repeat the process. Point to another box above the diagonal. Invite the participants to discuss the relative costs of the two items listed in the box. After a suitable discussion, circle the letter identifying the lower-cost alternative. Repeat this process until you have circled a letter in each box above the diagonal.
You point to the box labeled C vs.-E. The participants conduct a heated discussion to compare costs of scheduling staggered working hours and supporting telecommuting. The discussion takes a longer time because most of the costs (such as the feeling of resentment among people who are assigned the late-night shift) appear to be indirect and intangible. Finally, the participants conclude that support of telecommuting is less costly than staggered schedules and circle the letter “E”. They repeat this process with each of the other eight boxes above the diagonal.
Arrange the alternatives according to their costs. Count the number of times each letter is circled. The alternative associated the most frequently circled letter is the lowest-cost item. Beginning with this alternative, identify all alternatives from the lowest cost to the highest cost. In case of two letters being circled the same number of times, invite the participants to discuss the situation and arrive at a consensus choice of the lower-cost alternative.
Here are the results at the end of cost-comparisons among alternative solutions to the parking-lot problem: B-4, C-3, E-2, D-1 and A-0.
Use a method similar to the one used in the previous phase to arrange alternatives in order of their relative benefits.
Explain the rationale. Point out to the participants that just because they have identified the costs of different alternatives, it does not mean they can choose the lowest-cost alternative as the best one. It is possible that the cheapest alternative does not offer any significant benefits. So, it is important to also compare the potential benefits of different alternatives.
Identify benefit factors. Briefly explain different types of potential benefits such as immediate profits, future profits, cost savings, time savings, and employee satisfaction. Give examples of benefits associated with money, time, personnel, and psychological factors. Ask the participants to specify the types of benefits associated with different alternatives.
Using Alternative A (building a multilevel parking lot), you present these sample benefits:
- Future profits: You can charge a modest parking fee.
- Cost saving: You save on costs associated with employees arriving late.
- Time saving: Employees don’t have to waste time looking for a place to park.
- Employee satisfaction: Employees are happy about the corporation improving their working conditions.
Relate benefits to different items. Ask the participants to discuss the types of potential benefits associated with each alternative and whether each of these benefits is low, medium, or high.
In discussing telecommuting as an alternative, the participants identify a high psychological benefit because they feel more empowered and that the corporation trusts them to make appropriate decisions. They also identify enormous time saving because employees don’t have to commute to work every day.
Compare benefits of paired alternatives. Direct the participants’ attention to the comparison table on the flip chart. Explain that the boxes below the blank diagonal are for benefit comparisons. Each box contains two alternatives and every alternative is paired with every other alternative. Point to the box labeled B vs. A and ask the participants to discuss the relative benefits of the two alternatives.
The participants compare the benefits of encouraging car pooling with the benefits of building a multilevel parking lot.
Select the higher-benefit alternative. Ask the participants to select the higher-benefit alternative. If there is disagreement, encourage the participants to talk to each other until they reach consensus. Circle the appropriate letter in the box to indicate the higher-benefit alternative.
After some interesting debate, the participants decide that building a multilevel parking lot is potentially more beneficial than encouraging car pooling. They believe that most employees will be reluctant to give up their “transportation freedom” and so attempts at car pooling will not be effective. So, you circle letter “A” in this box.
Repeat the process. Point to another box below the diagonal. Invite the participants to discuss the relative benefits of the two items listed in the box. After a suitable pause, invite the participants to circle the letter identifying the higher-benefit alternative. Repeat this process until you have circled a letter in each box below the diagonal.
You point to the box labeled E vs. C. The participants discuss the potential benefits of telecommuting with staggered working hours. They quickly decide that telecommuting has higher benefits, particularly in terms of employee satisfaction. They circle the letter “E”. They repeat this process with each of the other eight boxes below the diagonal.
Choose the best alternative. Compare the lowest-cost and the highest-benefit alternative the teams have identified. If they are the same, then this alternative is obviously the best one (because it provides the most benefits at the least cost).
Unfortunately, the sample game does not provide such clear results. Actually, the lowest-cost alternative (car pooling) offers the lowest benefits. Similarly, the highest benefit alternative (multilevel parking lot) costs the most!
Discuss and decide. If the lowest-cost and the highest-benefit alternatives are different for one another, invite the participants to discuss the situation and to reach consensus on the most suitable alternative.
After a thoughtful discussion, participants decide that encouraging telecommuting is the best overall strategy for reducing the parking-lot problem. They also decide to combine this strategy with voluntary car pooling.
Debrief the Participants
To obtain the maximum long-term benefits from Apples and Oranges, invite the participants to discuss their experiences during the activity. Here are some suggested questions to prompt this discussion:
- What would have been your choice if we had not gone through this comparison procedue?
- Are you comfortable with the final choice? If not, what are the reasons for your discomfort?
- If we invited all the participants to secretly vote for their personal choice now, do you believe that the results will be the same?
- Did the game encourage you to give your inputs and express your opinions?
- What are the advantages of using this game? What are its disadvantages?
- What are some situations where you would not use this game? Why not?
- Can you use this game for the selection of a political candidate? What modifications would you make to the game?
- How would you modify this game for use in making personal decisions?
- How would you modify this game for use with a large group?
- How would you modify this game to speed it up?
Here are some options you can employ to customize this game:
Not enough time? Reduce the number of alternatives. Prepare a short list of specific cost and benefit factors. Make a single pass through the boxes above the diagonal and compare both costs and benefits. Alternatively, ask one team to work on cost comparisons while another team works on on benefit comparisons.
Ample time? Increase the number of alternatives. Conduct the game in three installments: cost comparison, benefits comparison, and final choice. Separate each installment by a few days during which the teams interview people and collect objective data.
Too many participants? Create a "graffiti wall" with a large-size version of the comparison table. Invite individual participants to write cost and benefit comparison statements on sticky note paper and attach them to appropriate boxes. Later, ask the participants to review these notes and vote for the best alternative.
Too many alternatives? With more than six alternatives, comparisons become cumbersome. So, filter the alternatives to the top three to six. Use a multi-voting procedure to accomplish this: List the alternatives on a flip chart and give three sticky colored dots to each participant. Invite participants to vote their preferences by placing the colored dots next to a preferred alternative. Count the numbers of colored dots to identify the top alternatives.