The Phoenix Checklist
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Overview

Popularised by prominent ex-spy and creativity author Michael Michalko, this checklist was developed by the CIA to solve complex and difficult problems. 

The Phoenix Checklist comprises over 40 questions to help understand and solve complex problems. The questions encourage you to take multiple perspectives on the problem and span topics such as defining the problem; breaking it down; reframing; right through to solving and taking action. 

A QUICK NOTE ABOUT OUR REMIX. 

The original Phoenix Checklist list of questions was challenging to absorb let alone use — so we’ve taken some liberties with the version below. We’ve still included all of the questions, but we’ve tweaked their order and ‘chunked’ them under key themes to make them more intuitive and actionable. 

THE PHOENIX CHECKLIST.

Part 1: Explore the Problem. 

THEME (Our addition)

QUESTIONS

Identify the impact.

  • Why is it necessary to solve the problem?

  • What benefits do you get by solving the problem?

  • What are the best, worst and most likely outcomes you can imagine?

Check the information.

  • What information do you have?

  • What are the unknown factors?

  • What are you not yet understanding?

  • Is the information you have sufficient? Insufficient? Superfluous? Contradictory?

Define the problem.

  • What is not the problem?

  • Can you describe the problem in a chart?

  • Where is the limit for the problem?

Break the problem down.

  • Can you distinguish the different parts of the problem? 

  • Can you write them down? 

  • What are the relationships between the different parts of the problem? 

  • What is common to the different problem areas?

Recognise and reframe the problem.

  • Have you encountered this problem before?

  • Have you seen this problem in a slightly different form? Do you know a related issue?

  • Try to think of a familiar problem with the same or similar unknown factors.

  • Suppose you find a problem similar to yours that has already been resolved. Can you use it? Can you use the same method?

  • Can you reformulate your problem? How many different ways can you reformulate it? More generally? More specifically? Can the rules change?


 

Part 2: Solve, Plan, and Act. 

THEME (Our addition)

QUESTIONS

Build on what you know.

  • What are the unique qualities that make this problem what it is and nothing else?

  • Can you deduce something useful from the information you have?

  • Have you used all available information?

  • How much of the unknown can you influence?

  • Have you taken into account all the essential factors in the problem?

Use multiple approaches.

  • Can you identify the steps in the problem-solving process? Can you determine the accuracy of each step?

  • What creative techniques can you use to generate ideas? How many different techniques?

  • How many different ways can you try to solve the problem?

Explore solutions.

  • Can you solve the whole problem? Part of the problem?

  • Can you imagine the result? How many different types of results can you imagine?

  • What would you like the solution to be? Can you imagine it?

  • Can you intuitively see the solution? Can you check the result?

  • What have others done?

  • How do you know when you are successful?

Commit to action. 

  • What should be done? How should it be done?

  • Where, when and by whom should it be done?

  • What do you need to do right now?

  • Who will be responsible for what?

Measure and amplify.

  • Which milestones can best highlight your progress?
  • Can you use this problem to resolve any other issues?

 

IN YOUR LATTICEWORK. 

The Phoenix Checklist covers a lot of ground and has multiple connections to other models. Combine it with the Fishbone/ Ishikawa Diagram as part of a root cause analysis. In terms of problem-solving and taking action, you might want to combine it with Design Thinking for a human-centric perspective; as well as the Cynefin Framework and Agile Methodology to understand and take action in complexity.  

Finally, given the number of questions, The Phoenix Checklist surprisingly skips any consideration of cognitive biases which are important considerations in complex problem-solving. You can rectify that by improving this checklist with an awareness of Functional Fixedness, Anchoring, Confirmation Heuristic, and other heuristics.

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Actionable takeaways
  • Invest in understanding the problem. 

Before jumping to solutions, take time to identify the impact of the problem; check in with your current knowledge and understanding of it; define the scope of the problem; see whether it can be broken down effectively; and recognise and reframe the problem. 

  • Work to solve and move to a plan. 

When moving to solution mode, start by building on what you currently know; try multiple approaches and processes; explore solutions; commit to action; and be sure to measure and amplify your approach. 

  • Download The Phoenix Checklist Canvas below.

Know that you’re likely going to forget this checklist so use our just-in-time canvas which you can download below (members only). 

Explore More
The Phoenix Checklist is featured in these Playbooks:
In Practice

The problem with spies

The problem with spies is that they don’t tend to publish case studies about how they operate — thus we have no record of this Checklist being used by CIA Operatives. Beyond that, the questions obviously serve as a broader checklist for problems in business and life. 

Limitations

As noted in the overview, the checklist does not consider the role of cognitive biases, which seems like an obvious pitfall in any potential problem-solving approach. Beyond that, it tends to brush over recommendations to use multiple processes and approaches during solution-mode, without suggesting any specific options. 

A final criticism we have of this model is that it is unwieldy. We have already chunked and categorised the questions which still might be overwhelming in high-pressure situations and impractical for rapid decision-making. 

Build your latticework
This model will help you to:

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Origins & Resources

The Phoenix Checklist was first popularised via Michael Michalko’s book Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques

Michalko worked as an officer in the US Army, a CIA consultant, and led a NATO intelligence team who collaborated with academics to research and categorise inventive-thinking methods. He was often called upon to facilitate CIA think tank sessions with his creative-thinking techniques. 

He has since become a prolific author and creativity consultant, supporting businesses to apply creative practices.

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