Tackle Problems Like a CIA Agent: The Phoenix Checklist

Author: Zenresume Editorial Team
Updated on March 05, 2021

Arguably, our whole lives consist of complex sets of “problems” and “challenges” we have to face and solve.

And the worst part—

Most of these pop up out of nowhere. No matter how meticulously we plan our personal and professional activities, it’s just too difficult to account for the unexpected. Just imagine...

  • Your flight gets cancelled. Or...
  • Your child gets bad flu.
  • Maybe a strategic supplier pulls out of a major deal without prior notice.
  • You’re extremely shy, yet need to deliver a wedding speech in front of 100+ people.
  • $8,000 extra tax to pay because of your accountant’s mistake...

Or anything else, equally out-of-the-blue, happens.

What do you do? Well. You adapt.

But prior to that, you panic for a little while. We all do.

Now guess what? There are people out there who cannot afford to panic. Not even for a split second.

Who am I talking about?

Mothers. And CIA agents.

They need to evaluate every problem they encounter in a flash, then come up with, and implement an effective solution. Otherwise, disaster strikes.

And… While the former “simply” have supernatural powers, the latter use a handy technique for solving all sorts of problems.

It’s called “The Phoenix Checklist—a set of context-free questions developed by the CIA to encourage agents to look at a challenge from multiple angles and find the most effective fix.

And the sheer beauty of the checklist lies in the fact that it’s “context-free.” It means you can use it to analyze any obstacle you encounter. And then come up with the right solution. Plus—

The purpose of these questions, instead of guiding you out of the problem step-by-step, is to let you get several perspectives so that you can have your “Eureka!” moment sooner rather than later. That also means you don’t have to go through all of the questions—you just need to answer enough to find a solution.

Without further ado, let’s have a look at The Phoenix Checklist. Read on to see a real-life example of how it works in practice.

The Phoenix Checklist: List of Questions

The checklist consists of two sets of questions. The first one of these is supposed to help you get a clearer picture of the problem you’re facing. The second one lets you efficiently work towards a solution.



So there’s the checklist. Now let’s use it to fix a very real problem.

And, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll make it personal. It’s something that happened to me a couple of months ago.

My car broke down.

Not only did it break down. It did so two days before a three-week road trip around Europe I was planning to take with my girlfriend.

And it didn’t just break down, either. A combined system of a radiator and air conditioning crashed so severely, it required a complete replacement. That meant at least 10 working days of waiting for the parts to arrive. And was supposed to cost around $2,500—a third of my 8-year-old Ford’s market value.

Rewind to a few weeks ago: here I am.

Set to leave the day after tomorrow. Car broken down, no good alternative in sight.

Let’s use the CIA’s technique to find the right way out.

The CIA’s problem-solving checklist put into practice

We’ll begin with evaluating the problem.

Why is it necessary to solve the problem?

  • Because I want to go on vacation. And when I get back, I need a car that’s up and running.

What benefits will you receive by solving this problem?

  • I’ll be able to take the long-awaited, carefully-planned trip.

What is the unknown?

  • Is there any other way we can reach all (or most) of the planned destinations?

Let’s have a look then.

Flying doesn’t seem to be an option. It would be extremely hard to find transportation from airports to our apartments, let alone some of the secluded places we’re planning to visit. Plus, we have 7 major destinations on our list. That’s at least 8 last-minute flights. A swift glance at the currently available flights and I can clearly state:

  • The flight schedule is extremely inconvenient.
  • I can’t afford it.

What is the information you have?

  • I can’t use my car. I need to repair it, which will cost me about $2,500. I cannot afford traveling by plane. I can’t reschedule the trip. I can rent a car for the trip for $900.

What are the boundaries of the problem?

  • We need to reset the budget for the holiday to fit in the extra expense of $900.

Can you separate the various parts of the problem? What are the relationships between them? What are the constants?

  • There are two parts. The first one is short-term: I can’t use my car to go on vacation. The solution is pretty straightforward: rent a car.
  • But that won’t help with another, arguably more fundamental, issue: I need to have my car repaired and I can barely afford it.

Or… do I?

Let’s see.

I think I know enough about my problem.**Time to use the “Phoenix Checklist” to devise a plan.**

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

  • I can solve the whole problem right off. But—it will leave a glaring hole in my finances.

What would you like the resolution to be?

  • I would like to have a driveable car and still be able to afford food. Ideally, I’d like to find a way to increase my road trip budget. So here’s an idea...

How much of the unknown can you determine?

  • Most of it. I need to pay a visit to a few car dealerships, research the most convenient lease deals, and decide whether or not they’re right for me.
  • Then I need to find out how much exactly my car is worth and determine the most profitable way to sell it.

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

  • Step 1: take my car to a garage and arrange the repair. Make sure it can be done.
  • Step 2: rent a car for the trip. Go on vacation. Have fun.
  • Step 3: find a good lease deal. Make sure the installments won’t break the bank.
  • Step 4: put my car up for sale. Set a price that accurately reflects its value.
  • Step 5: sell my car. Make alterations to my monthly budget to fit in the leasing installments.
  • Step 6: lease a car. Fall in love with it.

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

  • I’m on vacation. I’m back. My car is fixed. My car is sold. My savings account isn’t ruined. I drive a new car.

Can you use this problem to solve some other problem?

  • Not really “solve,” but identify, yes. The other problem is not urgent, but it’s clearly there. I was faced with a major expense and I barely found a way for it not to impact my daily life for months to come.
  • I need to learn how to save more money.

Here we go. I might as well use the checklist again to help me solve another problem. “I’m horribly bad at saving.”

Why is it necessary to solve a problem?—So that, in case of a financial emergency I’ll keep my head above the water.

What benefits will you receive…

And so on. You get the drill.

It’s not magic, but it’s just what you need

As I said in the introduction, the checklist won’t solve your problems on its own.

It won’t disclose any information you don’t yet have. But it will let you make the most of what you already know.

Now that I think of it, The Phoenix Checklist is a whole lot like Mr Wolf from Pulp Fiction.

I mean, just watch the first minute of this clip for reference. Way to evaluate problems keeping a cool head.

And the same applies to the Checklist. It seems like it’s there only to state the obvious. But it gets the job done and you—out of trouble. Because “the obvious” is exactly what you’re missing when you’re overcome with emotions.

So, what do you think?

You can use the Phoenix Checklist to solve any professional or personal problem you encounter. And I strongly encourage you to try it out!

Struggling with stress? Hate your coworkers? Argue with your spouse too much? Just ask yourself the questions from the checklist. I can guarantee you’ll find the fix in no time. And once you do, please let me know in the comments. I’d love to hear your stories!



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