What can we learn from the CIA?

Quite a lot as it happens.

I don’t mean covert operations, black ops, tradecraft, legends and the stuff of movies. And I don’t mean their overall mission. I mean how they train their analysts and agents to look at intelligence and information in a very thorough manner.

Thus was born the Phoenix Check List.

This is a list of context free questions designed to encourage agents to look at a challenge from lots of different angles. A way of divergent thinking, if you like. And it has great relevance for what we do in our industry. See what you think.

The Problem

  • Why is it necessary to solve the problem?
  • What benefits will you gain 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 (things that can’t be changed) 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?

It’s quite an open, fluid and challenging way of looking at things.

It’s actually a very good way of thinking around problems and when applied to our business world of brand, strategy & communications, it makes your approach to the whole discipline of fact finding much more flexible and robust. And more interesting.

I like the question ‘What isn’t the problem?’

Evidence is the name we give to what we have, but what about the things we haven’t found? Sometimes the things that are missing or we haven’t thought to look for, are of far greater importance.

The next stage of the Phoenix Checklist is:

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 figure?
  • 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 decide the correctness of each step?
  • What creative thinking techniques can you use to generate ideas? How many techniques?
  • Can you see the result? How many kinds of results can you see?
  • How many different ways have you tried to solve the problem?
  • Can you intuit the problem? 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 different from another?
  • What milestones can best mark your progress?
  • How will you know when you are successful?

These are the component parts of developing the solution to the problem. Look familiar?

So, perhaps consider the CIA's strategy when looking at a particular business issue, challenging the brief, writing the proposal, defining the strategy, inspiring creativity, finding the PR angle, writing the communications plan, all the stuff we do in our corporate communications and B2B worlds.

It’s all about diversity of thinking, but whilst the CIA approach is geared to looking at problems, I believe we should always look at & interrogate the opportunities too. There’s a plan for them too

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