How the CIA Puts Thinking back into Problem Solving

CIA Crest

When solv­ing a prob­lem, lots of peo­ple are taught research (by itself, an unin­sight­ful process for problem-finding) and prob­lem solv­ing. But the miss­ing piece is the “think­ing” part. And that needs to hap­pen reg­u­larly from begin­ning to end in order to under­stand the sys­tem: how the parts work together. And that’s why I love the CIA’s Phoenix Checklist.

Research with­out think­ing only takes us obvi­ous places. We don’t see con­nec­tions, because we don’t look for them; instead, we’re only see­ing con­nec­tions from oth­ers’ research and opin­ions. We’re only see­ing what presents itself, as the the data lead us down rab­bit trails. In the end, we’re left with no insights about the prob­lem we’re solv­ing, but only a cat­a­log of facts that are pretty obvi­ous to both our­selves and every­one else.

Brain­storm­ing with­out under­stand­ing leads to poorly fit­ting solu­tions. With­out the abil­ity to see the prob­lem at a log­i­cal, systems-level is like ask­ing a three-year-old why my truck is back­fir­ing. He doesn’t even begin to under­stand com­bus­tion, so why would he know about this par­tic­u­lar situation?

The the Phoenix Check­list asks us to look at the prob­lem from dif­fer­ent angles, essen­tially cre­at­ing mul­ti­ple thought exper­i­ments for us to use to log­i­cal and sys­tem­at­i­cally nav­i­gate the prob­lem, giv­ing us a much fuller under­stand­ing. And with a fuller under­stand­ing of the prob­lem comes more energy spent on highly rel­e­vant solutions.

How the CIA define prob­lems & plan solu­tions: The Phoenix Check­list « BBH Labs.

4 Simple Ways to Lead Strategically

Usu­ally, strat­egy and lead­er­ship fail­ures point back to 4 things: fail­ure to think, fail­ure to dis­cover, fail­ure to decide and fail­ure to nego­ti­ate. Want to learn to lead strate­gi­cally? Read on to dis­cover the three most com­mon lead­er­ship fail­ures and what to do about them.

Lead­ers For­get to Think

Many com­pa­nies use best prac­tices like a crutch, mov­ing through sit­u­a­tions with­out stop­ping to think about the sys­tem. In other words, what are the basic build­ing blocks of our sit­u­a­tion? If we can think con­cep­tu­ally, we can see real­ity more clearly. But we have to be able to stop, turn off email, say no to dis­trac­tions and think. If you need to be con­vinced, check out this arti­cle.

Lead­ers Fail to Discover

It’s easy to find data to pro­tect you from tak­ing the blame, but the best lead­ers aren’t look­ing for excuses; they’re look­ing for for­ward move­ment. ROI is very help­ful, but it’s backward-looking; it can’t tell you what’s ahead as well as qual­i­ta­tive research and the leader’s strate­gic cre­ativ­ity in con­nect­ing the dots.

Lead­ers Fail to Decide

Great lead­ers decide and define. They don’t show up with part of the data and ask oth­ers to make the deci­sion for them. And then they take respon­si­bil­ity for the decision.

Lead­ers Fail to Negotiate

Once the leader decides the prob­lem and the strate­gic direc­tion, he/she presents it to his team and allows them to cri­tique, inquire and improve. The leader needs to have a strong enough phi­los­o­phy of the problem/opportunity to enter­tain objec­tions and make sense of them.

The Solu­tion

The solu­tion isn’t straight­for­ward, but starts with a few things.


Find soli­tude and make it your mis­sion to sit for an hour and a half every week with a blank piece of paper (or sev­eral). On that piece of paper, write the top­ics and major cat­e­gories you’re try­ing to address. Then, think about the prob­lems from a con­cept level. In other words, don’t say “if only so-and-so would file TPS reports,” but say “how do we deal with the TPS reports prob­lem?” This allows you to reframe prob­lems so you can solve them. Remem­ber, all you need is a 1/4″ hole, not nec­es­sar­ily a 1/4″ drill bit.

Accel­er­ate Dis­cov­ery with a Work­ing Hypothesis

Dis­cov­ery may be even eas­ier than we think. We’re taught in school that there’s one right way to con­duct research (some ver­sion of “learn every­thing you can about the topic,” which is a very unin­ter­est­ing, unor­ga­nized, bottom-up process, lead­ing to time wasted), but I say cre­ate your own hypoth­e­sis and ask ques­tions until you find a con­vinc­ing answer. This could be get­ting sources from the trade press, indus­try experts, hir­ing a research firm or con­duct­ing your own qual­i­ta­tive research (inter­views or focus groups). The key is this: get curi­ous and get good at prov­ing or disproving.

Reframe Deci­sions

Deci­sion can cre­ate dis­com­fort. But since we can’t get away from it, let’s reframe it. We never make wrong deci­sions, but we could always improve. So have a bias toward deci­sion. This take practice.

One more thing about decision…it’s almost impos­si­ble to have deci­sion clar­ity when you don’t have a clear goal and strat­egy. So maybe go back to the strat­egy draw­ing board before you try to make a tough deci­sion. It could make it easier.

Nego­ti­a­tion is a Pro­duc­tiv­ity Multiplier

Nego­ti­a­tion is the easy part, as long as you’re cool bring­ing peo­ple in and lis­ten­ing to what they have to say. Here’s the beauty of nego­ti­at­ing: when they have a say and get pas­sion­ate about a point of view, they’re now engaged. And engage­ment is always a pro­duc­tiv­ity force mul­ti­plier. So make peo­ple feel heard and involve them often. It’s not your job to be right all the time; it’s your job to make peo­ple around you effec­tive. If you can do that, you can nego­ti­ate projects to be more on-strategy.

This advice is sim­ple, but it’s not easy. It takes an ever-increasing amount of secu­rity in the leader and a desire to grow.

Agree or dis­agree with any­thing in this piece or want help? Let me know.

Innovation Through Division

Inno­va­tion through divi­sion cre­ates pro­duc­tive ten­sion in your team that allows cre­ativ­ity to spring to life. But in order to do this, you have to know a few things.

All Tal­ent isn’t the Same

You have inno­va­tors and adapters on your team that both do dif­fer­ent things. The inno­va­tors try to find a dif­fer­ent solu­tion, while adapters try to find one that’s better.

Usu­ally, the inno­va­tor will cre­ate a rev­o­lu­tion­ary prod­uct, while the adapter makes small improve­ments on the exist­ing prod­uct. But the inno­va­tor does this with more trial and error. Also, there’s no guar­an­tee she’ll come up with some­thing new.

What this means

Adapters are bet­ter at pulling us to the pre­de­ter­mined fin­ish line.

Inno­va­tors are bet­ter at ignor­ing speed and focus­ing on qual­ity instead.

Why it works

In adver­tis­ing, you have an account exec­u­tive, who’s usu­ally an adapter. She’s more con­cerned with get­ting things done and pre­serv­ing the client rela­tion­ship. But the cre­ative staff that works for her client is made up of inno­va­tors. Those inno­va­tors are look­ing past best prac­tices, and often aren’t try­ing to please the client, but rather try­ing to please the client’s customers.

Did you catch that? The account exec­u­tive is try­ing to serve the client, which makes the client feel heard and cre­ates the ambas­sado­r­ial rela­tion­ship. The cre­atives are inter­ested in mak­ing the client’s cus­tomers under­stand them. And this ten­sion cre­ates bril­liant results.

How it Looks

If you want to know what it looks like when a client has full con­trol over their cre­ative, just watch the low-cost com­mer­cials on TV. Notice the num­ber of times the own­ers’ fam­ily mem­bers are in the spot. Or how the mes­sage is spread across qual­ity, ser­vice and price, with­out really dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing. Or how the brand talks about them­selves more than they talk about their cus­tomers. This is what it looks like when every­one in the agency is try­ing to please the client.

To get great results, you want strat­egy that’s based in research, that helps drive the cre­atives to under­stand that one thing a cus­tomer needs to hear—that one thing that’ll get them to buy. And then they tell that story, and don’t ever talk about price.

How to use it

So now, in your busi­ness, prod­uct devel­op­ment could be led by inno­va­tors who are inter­ested in defin­ing the prob­lem really well. Those def­i­n­i­tions then inform your prac­ti­cal inno­va­tors (engi­neers, writ­ers and design­ers) who will then exe­cute a solu­tion with the cus­tomer in mind.

Adapters become the project man­agers, the HR folks, admin­is­tra­tors and oth­er­wise peo­ple who are a lit­tle bet­ter, faster, stronger, etc. These are the peo­ple who make the inno­va­tion work in society.


So when you’re plan­ning how you’ll oper­ate, and how you’ll staff, put some time into think­ing about what you’re ask­ing peo­ple to do. Are you ask­ing them to inno­vate or to adapt? And if you’re hav­ing prob­lem with staff plan­ning or writ­ing the job descrip­tion, look me up, and I’ll lend you a hand.

Adaptive Company Goals: Negotiating Dreams with Reality

Think of orga­ni­za­tional goal set­ting as ask­ing the mar­ket for a raise. Some of us are happy with a cost-of-living raise. Oth­ers imag­ine what things would be like if all your wildest dreams come true. But we’re too-often stuck in the mode of try­ing to mar­gin­ally improve things. Another 5% increase in prof­its and we’ll be okay.

I’m here to tell you how to use dreams to define goals and processes that will pull you forward.

Dream­ing Makes you Unfocused”

Seri­ous busi­ness peo­ple can’t slow down enough to do any real imag­in­gin. We have to con­stantly be in motion. We need to act today to get what we need. There are emergencies—fires to put out. It would be height of irre­spon­si­bil­ity to stop and think about the future, even if some­thing inside of us tells us that think­ing ahead is pre­cisely the rem­edy for all of my day-to-day involve­ment in things.

So it isn’t dream­ing that makes com­pa­nies unfo­cused, but it’s the fail­ure to turn those dreams into action­able steps.

Fail­ure to Dream is a Lack of Discipline

We have a solution-minded cul­ture. This is the real prob­lem. We’re addicted to solv­ing prob­lems, so much so that we often for­get to under­stand the prob­lem. Rather than cre­at­ing mean­ing­ful action, this cre­ates cul­tures of activ­ity Here’s what it looks like:

  • Man­agers use research and data to defend aver­age deci­sions, when they could be mak­ing bold, strategy-based deci­sions, and then using data—well-understood data—to help shape our strategy.
  • Check­ing emails to find things to do, because we don’t have a mean­ing­ful, forward-moving activ­ity that will move us for­ward substantially.
  • A cul­ture that lacks belief in its abil­ity to take respon­si­bil­ity to move things for­ward in a belief that its efforts will cre­ate vic­to­ries for both indi­vid­u­als and the organization.

The Solu­tion: Dynamic Goal Setting

Goal set­ting doesn’t work when it doesn’t con­nect to actions. It needs to con­nect today’s efforts to larger goals. So when we set goals, we can set them pretty loftily. Don’t try to cri­tique your­self too much. Be naïve. Don’t worry; you won’t stay naive for long.

Then, push back. Do a finan­cial cal­cu­la­tion that tests those big, lofty goals. This takes you one of two places: You either adjust your long-term goals a lit­tle bit or you do the coura­geous thing: you ask your­self what’s get­ting in the way, so you can get to solutions.

For Exam­ple

For exam­ple, let’s say you’re a con­sul­tancy, and you want to make $1.5M over 3 years (your naive goal). But by today’s num­bers, your fore­cast is maybe $400k over that same amount of time, which isn’t even a third of the goal. You could deal with this in two ways: either adjust the 3-year num­ber to match today’s num­bers, with mar­ginal improve­ments, or explore the possibilities.

You might decide that the prob­lem is capac­ity; you don’t have enough time in the day to do all that work. All of a sud­den, you’re iden­ti­fy­ing the prob­lem. Now, you can find ways to increase capac­ity: do I hire con­trac­tors to cre­ate scal­a­bil­ity? How will I con­trol qual­ity? A train­ing pro­gram and coaching?

So when you’re mak­ing a strate­gic plan, bor­row from nego­ti­a­tion tech­niques: try to make a high ini­tial offer, just like when you’re buy­ing a car. Then chal­lenge that num­ber and help your­self get to a place where your dreams and real­ity can find com­mon ground in reality.

Take the Time to Plan Adaptively

This process takes time, but you can do it your­self by carv­ing out strat­egy time and using some think­ing and plan­ning tech­niques and dis­ci­plines that great lead­ers use. Mind maps, the SWOT analy­sis and employee inventory.

And if you’d like to accel­er­ate this process, I’d like to help. Con­tact me to find out if I can help you do this your­self, while help­ing you along the way.

Why Tasks are Bad for Leaders and Problem Solvers

Lead­ers are prob­lem solvers, among other things. But lots of lead­ers end up com­plet­ing tasks and putting out fires rather than actu­ally solv­ing problems.

How It Looks

Busi­nesses need lead­ers who can show them what the future looks like…people who can see prob­lems and under­stand why they’re prob­lems and exactly what they’re made of, down to the human elements.

Because the one who under­stands the prob­lem the best has a sig­nif­i­cant strate­gic advan­tage over the competition.

They have to under­stand how things work and why in order to know how to break from the rest of the indus­try and become more rel­e­vant to customers–to solve the real problem.

Now, the ques­tion becomes, in its sim­plest form, what adjust­ments do we make that will most sim­ply and directly solve that problem.

Doing this takes study and a lit­tle bit of well-placed research, which many lead­ers sim­ply don’t have. Because they’re loaded down with tasks and putting out super­fi­cial fires, instead of extin­guish­ing them at the source.

The Solu­tion: Del­e­gate Tasks and Focus on Prob­lem Find­ing and Solving

The main theme here is that lead­ers need to get out of the day-to-day. Lead­ers shouldn’t be over­bur­dened with tasks. Rather, they should be mas­ter del­e­gaters who can study a prob­lem until they under­stand it well, which is the fastest approach to a well-fitting solution.

How to Do It

There’s more to get­ting out of the day-to-day than just know­ing you need to del­e­gate. It’s sim­ple, but not easy. If you want to enjoy busi­ness again, stop get­ting over­whelmed, and let me help you ease into it in a way that’s excit­ing and deliv­ers short-term results as well as long-term. Con­tact me here.