The Coolest Leadership Tool I’ve Ever Seen

The Coolest Leadership Tool I’ve Ever Seen

I recently came across the coolest leadership tool I have ever seen and it reminded me of my past and current detective craze.

You see, when I was younger I wanted to be a detective.


Not any old detective, but one of Charlie’s Angels.

That’s me in the middle

Unfortunately, so did every other girl growing up on my block in Queens!

We’d run around the streets playing Charlie’s Angels.

But first we’d  fight over who got to play Jill (Farrah).

Then we’d fight over who got to be Kelly.

The loser was always Sabrina (No one ever wanted to be her.)

Once that was all decided, with a flip of our hair we were off to our detective work.

Fast forward many years and I’m still playing detective.

Though I’d like to think more CIA style than Angels’ style.

So what’s this all got to do with leadership and person-centered care?


So this tool can help you too!

Often when looking for a solution to an issue, we just assume we know the problem.

But often we don’t know the REAL problem.

To find out, you need to play detective.

And what better way to play detective than to use the same problem definition checklist that the CIA uses?!

(It’s much better than going fisticuffs over who gets to be Farrah and probably more useful to have than flowing hair.)


The Phoenix Checklist was developed by the CIA to help their agents look at problems from lots of angles.

How I wish I had this list to help me define problems when I was an administrator!

My favorite question on the list is the somewhat open-ended: ‘What isn’t the problem?’ (Emphasis mine.)

Here’s a real life example from an organization I recently worked with:

Staff shared with me that a resident was very “difficult” to care for.

She bit them, spit at them, and scratched them.

They had tried everything they could think of to care for her.

I asked different staff members about a time when she was not “difficult”.

Even if it was just one minute a day.

Everyone insisted that there was not a time that she wasn’t “difficult”.

Finally, a nursing assistant spoke up. “When I get her dressed I say to her, ‘Thank you for helping me get you dressed.’”

She shared that the resident would then reply, “You’re welcome.”

Then, not only did the resident not bite, spit and scratch this staff member, but the resident would actually help her!

A simple solution that was free, helped the staff and most importantly alleviated the resident’s stress! No antipsychotic required!

All by simple asking, “What isn’t the problem?”


It almost seems too easy.

But I guarantee you it works.

Go ahead. Try defining a problem in your organization by using the list and let me know how it goes in the comments below.

In my next blog I will share with you the next step…how the CIA’s plans a solution!


  1. Why is it necessary to solve the problem?
  2. What benefits will you receive by solving the problem?
  3. What is the unknown?
  4. What is it you don’t yet understand?
  5. What is the information you have?
  6. What isn’t the problem?
  7. Is the information sufficient? Or is it insufficient? Or redundant? Or contradictory?
  8. Should you draw a diagram of the problem? A figure?
  9. Where are the boundaries of the problem?
  10. 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?
  11. Have you seen this problem before?
  12. Have you seen this problem in a slightly different form? Do you know a related problem?
  13. Try to think of a familiar problem having the same or a similar unknown
  14. Suppose you find a problem related to yours that has already been solved. Can you use it? Can you use its method?
  15. Can you restate your problem? How many different ways can you restate it? More general? More specific? Can the rules be changed?
  16. What are the best, worst and most probable cases you can imagine?


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