# How the CIA define problems & plan solutions: The Phoenix Checklist

In a recent BBH Labs post (Wind Tunnel Marketing, The Sequel: On the Need for Divergent Insight) that talked about the need for divergent thinking and stimulus in approaching problem solving (& creative ideation), Chaz Wigley, the Chairman of BBH in Asia Pacific, mentioned how the CIA‘s (I’ve always wanted to link to the CIA) Problem Definition Checklist provoked precisely this kind of approach; rounded, many-faceted, flexible.

These questions are known as “context-free questions” and are designed “to encourage agents to look at a challenge from many different angles. Using Phoenix is like holding your challenge in your hand. You can turn it, look at it from underneath, see it from one view, hold it up to another position, imagine solutions, and really be in control of it” (see the excellent, if chewy, paper on Exploring Exploratory Testing, for more here).

We now have from Chaz not only the list of questions the CIA use to define problems, but also (thanks to Iqbal Mohammed) the follow-up list they use to develop the plan. Which seems kind of important too.

My personal favourite question in the problem definition list is the somewhat open-ended: ‘what isn’t the problem?’.

Enjoy.

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THE PROBLEM

Why is it necessary to solve the problem?

What benefits will you receive by solving the problem?

What is the unknown?

What is it you don’t yet understand?

What is the information you have?

What isn’t the problem?

Is the information sufficient? Or is it insufficient? Or redundant? Or contradictory?

Should you draw a diagram of the problem? A figure?

Where are the boundaries of the problem?

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?

Have you seen this problem before?

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

Try to think of a familiar problem having the same or a similar unknown

Suppose you find a problem related to yours that has already been solved. Can you use it? Can you use its method?

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?

THE PLAN

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

What would you like the resolution to be? Can you picture it?

How much of the unknown can you determine?

Can you derive something useful from the information you have?

Have you used all the information?

Have you taken into account all essential notions in the problem?

Can you separate the steps in the problem-solving process? Can you determine the correctness of each step?

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

Can you see the result? How many different kinds of results can you see?

How many different ways have you tried to solve the problem?

What have others done?

Can you intuit the solution? Can you check the result?

What should be done? How should it be done?

Where should it be done?

When should it be done?

Who should do it?

What do you need to do at this time?

Who will be responsible for what?

Can you use this problem to solve some other problem?

What is the unique set of qualities that makes this problem what it is and none other?

What milestones can best mark your progress?

How will you know when you are successful?

Amazingly, the question ‘What appears to be the problem?’ or more straightforward ‘What is the problem?’ is not on the list