How to Solve Impossible Problems: The Phoenix Checklist

How to use the thinking (and questioning) tool of the CIA

Every day we’re presented with what seem like impossible challenges. Issues that you can’t crack, even after weeks, months, or years of trying.

How do you approach these challenges? Do you have a strategy that you follow, or do you just hope for the best? There’s a better way to solve impossible problems — improve the quality of your thinking.

Better thinking, problem-solving, and reasoning are skills. They can be developed through learning new frameworks and expanding our mental models.

To solve impossible problems, improve the quality of your thinking.

Lucky for us, brilliant thinkers and institutions have left behind proven ways to attack these impossible problems.

The Phoenix Checklist is one of those tools.

What is the Phoenix Checklist?

Created by the United States Central Intelligence Agency (CIA), the Phoenix Checklist was popularized by Michael Michalko — a former CIA creative consultant — in his book Thinkertoys.

It’s a list of nearly forty prompts to help people ask the right questions when solving an impossible problem. By asking the right questions, we can begin to look at our situation in different ways, refine and solve it.

The Phoenix Checklist helps us ask the right questions — a critical step in solving impossible problems.

Why spend time clarifying the question when we could be spending time solving it? Well, the right problem has more to do with successful problem solving than you might think.

Why the Right Question is More Important Than the Right Answer

In his book about the science of creativity, Zig Zag, researcher Keith Sawyer uses the example of Instagram to illustrate why the right questions are critical in life, business, and creative endeavors.

Kevin Systrom, the founder of Instagram, started with a different question (and solution) when he first created burbn, the precursor to Instagram. At the time, location apps were hot. Platforms like Foursquare were being developed all over the world.

Systrom decided he wanted to get in on the location game, so he asked himself, “How can I make the world’s best location app?” and created burbn. But this first iteration didn’t take off. It did alright, people were using the app, but it wasn’t the billion-dollar app that Systrom had imagined.

After another programmer joined the burbn team — Mike Krieger — they decided to take a look at the data and see what parts of the app customers were using. It turned out that users weren’t checking in anywhere, but they took and shared lots of photos.

So, the team asked themselves a better question, “How can we create a simple and fun photo-sharing app?” Systrom and Krieger renamed their app Instagram, and within two years of launch, it was acquired by Facebook for a billion dollars.

How to Use the Phoenix Checklist

To get started with the Phoenix Checklist, begin with a problem or challenge statement — but know that this will change as you work through the process. Make sure to set a deadline for completing the process to keep yourself from getting stuck in analysis paralysis.

After defining your initial problem and ending date, work your way through the list of questions, considering your answers to each. Don’t be afraid to revise these answers, and your problem statement, as new insights appear.

The entire Phoenix Checklist is more than forty questions long. Below I’ve paraphrased and selected some of the key questions included in the total list. I’ve also elaborated them with answers to a hypothetical challenge statement:

Our original product, a portable music player, was very successful, so we need to create something incredible.”

  1. Why do we need to solve this problem? Our customers are getting anxious to buy a new and improved product — our first portable music player was a hit.

  2. What benefits will you get when you solve this problem? Customers will use the new version of our product more, upgrade to get a better experience, or hold more songs on their device.

  3. What do we know? What don’t we know for sure? We know that people love having their music in their pocket, but we don’t know if they’ll like doing that forever. Lots of customers don’t like having to carry around two devices — a phone and a portable music player.

  4. Can you break out the different aspects of the problem? We might be facing different problems in how we design, price, or market our product. In order to better solve this problem, we’ll need to break it down and examine each of its parts.

  5. What is NOT the problem? We don’t need to prove that people will love and buy a portable music player, because we’ve already done it.

  6. Do we have enough information or not enough? Right now, it seems like we have enough insider information, but we’ll need to take a look at what our competitors have planned as well.

  7. What would happen if we drew a picture of the problem? When customers have two devices and headphones, things get tangled up a lot. Sometimes they mistake their music device for their phone. It’s a lot to carry around, and doesn’t leave room for much else in pockets and bags.

  8. Where are the boundaries of the problem? We know we’ll need to create a digital device customers can hold in their hands, and that it should play music. The device might do other things but at the bare minimum it needs to play music.

  9. Has anyone else already solved a problem like ours? What method did they use? Can we copy it? Although other companies have created phones and portable music devices, only a few have music on their phones. What would happen if we created a product that combined a portable music player and a mobile phone?

  10. How will you know when you are successful? When we create our new device — a combination phone and music player, and customers like it, buy it, and use it.

If I asked and answered the checklist this way, I might redefine my problem. While I started asking how I might make a better digital music player, I eventually began asking myself if a portable music player was really the best solution. Instead, I figured out that customers might enjoy a product that combined a portable music player and a mobile phone.

As you might’ve guessed, the hypothetical example I’m using is of Steve Jobs and the creation of the iPhone. In 2001, Apple released the iPod — a handheld digital music player that was a huge success. Apple executives were worried that iPod sales might start declining once other mobile phone manufacturers figured out how to get digital music on their phones.

Jobs could have incrementally improved the iPod for a few more years, and waited for other companies to catch up. Instead, he asked himself a better question, which led to the creation of the iPhone.

Although we can’t be sure that Jobs used a process like this one, it could have helped Apple solve their problem in a similar way.

The bottom line

The Phoenix Checklist is a great way to start the problem-solving process. It can help you make sure you’re chasing the answer to the right question — not answering the question that happens to be in front of you.

You don’t have to stop with the questions included on the Phoenix Checklist. Instead, use it to start building your list of key questions. Every time you hear someone mention an interesting question, add it to your list. Pretty soon, you’ll have a Phoenix Checklist of your own.

And bear in mind the words of management guru and author Peter Drucker:

“The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong questions.”