ADA was an outgrowth of the interest at Stanford University in the 1960s in decision theory and analysis. One of the founders, Pete Morris, was an early contributor to the theory of aggregate probability distributions. Another early joiner, Lee Merkhofer, wrote books on cost-benefit analysis and risk analysis and applied decision analytic methods to environmental problems. The company president for over 20 years, Dick Smallwood, was a world expert on the methods of conjoint measurement and their application to predicting consumer preferences for products from cars to laser printers and health care plans. Al Miller developed the influence diagram technique for representing decision problems and his brother Bill created the powerful Windows application DPL (for Decision Programming Language). I joined ADA when it was about thirty people including support staff and grew to about eighty when I left in 2000. The firm was expanding and I understood enough of the company world view and mathematical sensibility to get hired.

Like many northern California companies of the time, ADA saw its goals as equally to make a good living and pursue its own intellectual goals. The latter was to apply methods of quantitative management science to complex real-world problems. Everybody was at least competent with the applied mathematics of uncertainty and choice—applied decision analysis in a broad sense. Over the years I worked for many of the big private corporations, government organizations and research funding groups. Like others I ended up specializing in certain methods and application areas. For me this was large institutional environmental risk problems: toxic waste cleanups, electromagnetic field risk (now a so-called “phantom” risk), smog, fish protection. I learned the marvelous techniques of a poorly appreciated part of decision analysis called multiattribute utility theory, basically invented by Ralph Keeney and his mentor Howard Raiffa as a characterization of choices with competing, incommensurable values or outcomes, such as ecological benefits, health benefits, dollar costs, jobs, aesthetic impacts (e.g. visibility), and so on.

Instead of focusing primarily on the uncertain and probabilistic side of risk, this theory provides an analytical framework for correctly codifying values and their comparisons. A good deal of folklore has developed, such as techniques for developing one-of-a-kind measurement scales for describing, say, the ecological changes expected in the San Francisco Bay Delta under a very limited set of changes. There’s a recognition that in all kinds of situations, nobody can provide greatly improved precision, so you really only need to worry about fundamental differences between choices possible. This is completely the reverse of a “scientific” approach in which it is assumed you need perfect information before acting. This methodology of “constructive” choice has been discussed and defended ably by cognitive researchers, and many excellent projects have made use of the techniques. The analytic framework is highly conducive for use in public participation or stakeholder processes, and that heuristic benefit to promote coherent debate is often the benefit of using the approach. Digerati are disappointed because the mathematics often becomes a scaffolding more than a slick analytical tool.

In addition to project work I designed and taught multi-day workshops and training programs in decision analysis, decision analysis software, a fad called “real options,” risk communication, and multiple value methods. ADA did all this while providing support for staff to write articles, attend conferences and the usual activities needed to maintain beltway or consultant status and visibility. A couple other firms near Stanford was similarly organized but ADA was compared to them ADA was either more varied, more laid back, or less willing to look like the big high-priced management consulting firms. The world of management consulting is like that of the ancient sophists, made up of cadres of able and quick learners willing to take on all kinds of intractable problems as long as you go along with their methods and unswerving direction.

At some point ADA decided it needed to get bigger to provide more opportunities for young people on the way up. After a couple of failed corporate alliances, one with an engineering company, the other with a rival consulting firm, we sold ourselves to PriceWaterhouseCoopers in 1998. The idea was that PwC would provide a gravy train of projects and we would not longer have to market—every consultant’s dream—with prefect growth potential. We’d do our thing for the PwC clients who found it useful. We would also help PwC build decision analytic methods into their corporate valuation approaches. None of this ever happened. The culture clash was complete and unforgiving. The decision was a disaster. The company basically fell apart after a few years. ADA has since been bought and resold a couple times, and is now a mere shell of its once vibrant, unique and reasonably profitable self.