The Phoenix Checklist for Framing a Problem and Its Solution

By | 2019-08-11T11:23:06+00:00 August 10th, 2019|checklist, skmurphy|0 Comments

In “Thinkertoys,” Michael Michalko describes “The Phoenix Checklist” as a rich set of questions developed by the CIA designed to help agents look at a challenge from many different angles.

The Phoenix Checklist for Framing a Problem and Its Solution

checklist for the Phoenix MethodMichael Machalko introduces the “Phoenix Checklist” in Chapter 14 (entitled “Phoenix”) of his book Thinkertoys. It’s a book well worth reading for renewing your creative juices; it offers a rich set of techniques to pick and choose from for creative problem framing and solving. Here is his introduction to the Phoenix Checklist:

Phoenix is a checklist of questions developed by the Central Intelligence Agency to encourage agents to look at a challenge from many different angles. […] Use the Phoenix checklist as a base on which to build your own personal checklist of questions.


  1. Write your challenge. Isolate the challenge you want to think about and commit yourself to an answer, if not the answer, by a certain date.
  2. Ask the questions. Use the Phoenix checklist to dissect the challenge in as many different way as you can.
  3. Record your answers. Information requests, solution, and ideas for evaluation and analysis.

Michael Machalko in “ThinkerToys” Chapter 14 “Phoenix”

Framing the Problem

Following is excerpted from “ThinkerToys” by Michael Machalko. The first level bullets are his; the second level bullets are my related comments and observations.

  • Why is it necessary to solve the problem?
    • What is the problem you are trying to solve?
    • What deadlines for a solution does the situation impose on  you?
  • What benefits will you receive by solving the problem?
    • What costs or other negative outcomes will you incur if you don’t
  • What is the unknown?
    • In addition to identifying unknowns, keep track of new unknowns you add as your understanding of the problem grows.
  • What is it you don’t yet understand?
    • Writing down what you are trying to determine can help. Also assigning these variables a range (e.g., 10th, 50th, 90th percentile) can help bound your ignorance.
    • Understanding what you don’t understand is very hard to determine in many cases because your lack of understanding is masked by an incorrect understanding. Forcing yourself to provide ranges allows for updating of your state of information.
  • What is the information you have?
    • How certain are you of each piece of information? Is false information influencing your ability to frame or describe the problem accurately?
  • What isn’t the problem?
    • These may be problems that appear related when they are not or aspects of the situation you had decided to live with to narrow the focus of your efforts to a severe problem or critical need.
  • Is the information sufficient? Or is it insufficient? Or redundant? Or contradictory?
    • What can you do with the information you have.
    • What is the expected value of perfect information? How does that compare with the cost of gathering it?
  • Should you draw a diagram of the problem? A figure?
    • It never hurts to draw a diagram.
    • Explaining it to someone else is also a good idea.
  • Where are the boundaries of the problem?
    • What are the boundaries on a solution?
    • One common mistake–or source of creative solutions–is to remove boundaries that are initially assumed but upon closer examination are not true constraints.
  • Can you separate the various parts of the problem? Can you write them down? What are the relationships of the parts of the problem? What are the constants of the problem?
    • Decomposition or ‘divide and conquer” can help but often we are confronted with a complex problem that is a problem precisely because of the interactions.
  • Have you seen this problem before?
    • If you find yourself solving the same problem or variations on it you probably have a higher level process problem or have yet to find a root cause corrective action.
  • Have you seen this problem in a slightly different form? Do you know a related problem?
    • It’s always good to ask how others have solved this problem, and what have they tried that failed.
  • Try to think of a familiar problem having the same or a similar unknown
    • I we do naturally. I think the actual risk is seeing a similarity that isn’t really there.
  • Suppose you find a problem related to yours that has already been solved. Can you use it? Can you use its method?
    • Put another way: look for related problems, even from other contexts, and how they were solved.
  • Can you restate your problem? How many different ways can you restate it? More general? More specific? Can the rules be changed?
  • What are the best, worst, and most probable cases you can imagine?
    • In decision analysis, 10%, 90%, and 50% probabilities are often substituted for best, worst, and average.

The Plan / Defining the Solution

Following is excerpted from “ThinkerToys” by Michael Machalko.

  • Can you solve the whole problem? Part of the problem?
    • While “small wins” are useful beware of sub-optimizing or solving the parts that are easily tractable.
  • What would you like the resolution to be? Can you picture it?
    • A viable question is can you ignore it?
  • How much of the unknown can you determine?
    • At what cost and in what time frame.
  • Can you derive something useful from the information you have?
    • Crafting hypotheses (“taking guesses”)  is one way to proceed with limited information.
    • What simple and relatively safe, low cost, and short term actions can you take to refine your understanding of the problem.
  • Have you used all the information?
    • What are the implications for the information you have.
    • What key piece of info would change your mind?
  • Have you taken into account all essential notions in the problem?
    • I’t’s eay to become fixed on one aspect.
  • Can you separate the steps in the problem-solving process? Can you determine the correctness of each step?
    • Problems solved by a flash of insight may be suddenly seen in a new light.
    • Keep a pad and paper and something write with by your bed in case you get an insight in the middle of the night.
  • What creative thinking techniques can you use to generate ideas? How many different techniques?
    • Michaelko offers a wealth of techniques in “ThinkerToys.”
    • Pursue “ridiculous ones” as a thought experiment if you are all out of good ideas. Scott Adams calls this “writing the bad version” (see “Six Tips For Writing An Email“).
  • Can you see the result? How many different kinds of results can you see?
    • It’s useful to pursue multiple approaches in parallel.
  • How many different ways have you tried to solve the problem?
    • It’s useful listing this if you have multiple people working in parallel, it keeps the group from moving in circles.
  • What have others done?
    • Do you have a good enough solution in hand? Use it before you hit any penalty deadlines.
  • Can you intuit the solution? Can you check the result?
    • How will you know you have solved the problem?
    • What problem will you promote when you solve this problem?
  • What should be done? How should it be done?
    • Pay as much attention to goals as tasks so you don’t lose sight of objective.
  • Where should it be done?
    • Where is pain worst? Where is culture most receptive? Where is need greatest? Where can we judge results the most rapidly?
  • When should it be done?
    • Need to synchronize and fit within other processes running unless this is the dominant problem facing your team or organization?
  • Who should do it?
    • Who has relevant expertise and experience.
    • Who is most familiar with problem?
    • Who is most familiar with the skills or techniques the solution or plan relies on?
  • What do you need to do at this time?
    • Is this a critical business issue that represents an interrupt to normal practice?
    • Is this a migration effort that needs sustained focus over a long period of time?
    • Is this a maintenance task that needs to be addressed but not necessarily urgently?
  • Who will be responsible for what?
    • Goals -> Role -> Process is a good rule of thumb; attack what first, then who, then when and where.
  • Can you use this problem to solve some other problem?
    • This is a follow on for phase 3: one you have understood and solved the initial problem.
  • What is the unique set of qualities that makes this problem what it is and none other?
    • Invert this: what categories is this product a member of?
  • What milestones can best mark your progress?
    • What accomplishments would reduce the risk of you not finding a solution?
  • How will you know when you are successful?
    • This is a key question.

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