Real Options – more than deferring commitment


So, you say you have no other option than doing this? Lucky you! I am seriously jealous right now!

Having “no other option” means no uncertainty about the future, or that we are so constrained that we have no choices, and no need to worry about making a good choice. Are any of us able to say we are 100% sure what is going to happen tomorrow? Are we sure there is no uncertainty in our work, process, life? Are we sure we´re making the right choice? To have no uncertainty about the future is to allow you to close options and make an early commitment. To simply have no choice because of constraints, is to be powerless to cope with uncertainty in the future.

Uncertainty is a big concern and a headache for thousands of managers around the world. How to make decisions when we need to operate in a constantly changing business environment? How to answer with confidence? How to choose wisely the path our enterprise should follow?

In these coronavirus times, many emergency field hospitals were built in expo halls and sports centers around the world. They were options. Insurance policies. In the end, many haven´t been needed and were recently dismantled. However, our governments had to pay for the insurance policy because the prospect of their regular health system becoming overwhelmed could have caused a huge human tragedy and severe economic pain on a nation. Options have a price!


When we are not able to predict the outcomes with confidence and precision, when there is uncertainty and a range of possible outcomes, we need to hedge the risk of undesirable outcomes. We do this using statistical understanding of probabilities. When we have no historical data, no understanding of the range and uncertainty, then we must hedge against the worst possible outcomes.

Dealing with everyday life situations we need to consider the future and the future is uncertain, that is why we use a number of different techniques and methods to minimize the impact of uncertainty on our actions and decisions: Like having a small house with a garden, maybe you can build an extension later when you get a pleasant surprise that another baby is coming. If you live in an apartment, you are constrained and cannot add an extra room to your home.

One such method for managing the risk of an uncertain future, is to apply real options to our initiatives.

What are Real Options?

Real Options are alternatives or choices that may be available for the business when appraising work items. When a decision-maker has the right (but no obligation) to take a specific action, we say the option exists. Think about ice-cream vendors having many flavors, and restaurants offering vegetarian options and other dietary considerations on their menu. These are the options they give you, out of which you have the right – but no obligation – to choose.

Having real options means you embody flexibility in the process of decisions making and development of work. They represent a form of insurance or a means to take advantage of a favorable situation and support making investment decisions when NPV* for current projects is unfavorable.

Real options are “actual options” – actual choices you can make in relation to investment opportunities, but for them to exist there must be an uncertainty about the future. In any certain circumstances applying or even considering options does not make any sense.

Real (financial) options

Option to delay

You see that NPV of the initiative taken now is unfavourable, hence you delay starting/finishing of this initiative to avoid loss or generate additional cash flow.

Imagine building a new product, which turns out to require additional components. You know that the component will be available in a 6-months. You decide to delay solution delivery and take advantage of adding this component to your product.

Option to expand

The NPV of your initiative is unfavourable in its current shape. Expanding the solution by additional functionalities, further investments or by entering new market will make NPV positive and the whole product worth delivery.

Remember the component from the previous example? Now it is available immediately. You can still deliver your solution without this component, but investment in purchase and expanding your product by it will turn to be valuable.

Option to re-deploy

Option to redeploy exists, when you decide to use already built or produced assets for initiatives other than original one. This switch should take place only when benefits of a new activity exceed the cost of switching. Otherwise option to abandon should be exercised.

You have been exploring a few different solutions investing time and effort in gathering information and requirements for each of them. You realize that researching for one of these solutions should not be continued, but you still can utilize the prototypes or testing in another one.

Option to abandon/withdraw

Sometimes the most reasonable choice is to abandon your initiative and stop investing time and money in it. You should be able to identify such options as quickly as possible and actively remove them.

Real (Kanban) options

“In the presence of real options, greater variety of possibilities and ideas is beneficial.”

David J. Anderson

Real options are an easy and helpful method to manage the upstream (discovery) Kanban system, where we must deal with multiple ideas and a high level of uncertainty. The greater the uncertainty, the more options required altogether with greater the percentage investment in upstream options development (in comparison to downstream delivery).

How can we apply real options thinking into discovery Kanban?

Look at each of the items in your ideas pool and decide, whether you should invest in it, discard it, or shelve it to come back to it later. This filtering and decision-making is a repeatable process, which takes place when an item moves through the upstream Kanban.

Option to invest:

  • Analysis of the work item indicates favourable outcomes.
  • Low level of uncertainty – we know this item should be considered for investment above all.
  • Can also transform into the option to expand if the conditions turn out to be more favourable than expected.

Option to shelve:

  • Delays taking the work item until a later date.
  • Applies to the high uncertainty in returns or missing information about the product.
  • Can be turned into “invest” option when economic conditions are favourable.
  • Can be discarded when economic conditions remain unfavourable.

  Option to discard:

  • Analysis of the work item indicates unfavorable outcomes.
  • Low level of uncertainty – we know this item should not be considered for investment.
  • The cost incurred needs to be considered a sunk cost.
  • Although this particular item is discarded, the results of the analysis may be re-used (re-deployed) in another project.

Real Options are one of the teachings from our new Kanban for Design and Innovation class. If you want to learn more about managing options in your pool of ideas, marshaling them through Discovery Kanban, and applying a pragmatic sequencing method, join the upcoming KDI classes.

*NPV – Net Present Value is the difference between the present value of cash inflows and the present value of cash outflows over a period of time (definition by Investopedia).

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.
The following GDPR rules must be read and accepted:
We will process your personal data to post your comments in the blog if you indicate your consent by checking the corresponding box. David J Anderson School of Management is the data controller. You can withdraw your consent and exercise your data protection rights at any time by contacting us at info@djaa.com For more information review our Privacy Policy.

Summer Sale Starts now! Up to 50% Off Training