Suppose you tagged a “rose” as a red, pink, or white flower one gives to a beautiful woman, a pleasant hostess, or to a deceased friend. The tagging of a complex flower with the single label (rose) and one description would detour your curiosity more than cultivate it. However, if you asked a series of questions about roses, you would have a better understanding. You could better describe the rose, how it is grown, its thorns, its blossoms, its fragrance, how others have used the rose, as well as how to best package and use it.

In the same way, tagging any subject with a single label and description detours curiosity and limits imagination. Consider the steel industry. The executives tagged a complex process with the single label (big steel) and one description (the integrated process) and suffered for years with an uneconomical industry. Finally, a group of young men asked a series of questions that changed the industry.

The steelmaking process had been uneconomical since it was invented in the 1870s. The integrated steel process uses ore and creates very high temperatures four times, only to be quenched and then it lifts masses of metal and transports them over great distances. The only time the industry performed well was in times of war. The industry was a lump in America’s gravy.

A group of young men assiduously framed and asked questions and sought solutions. They asked aggressive questions about every step of the steel-making process. Despite the opposition of management, through questioning, they discovered that the integrated process tried to defy the laws of physics and this means the laws of economics as well.

What they discovered was that since the early 1970s, the demand for steel was going up. However, the minimum incremental unit needed to satisfy that demand in an integrated mill is a substantial investment. Any expansion is thus likely to operate at a low utilization rate, until demand, which always rises in small steps, reaches the capacity. And not to expand when demand creeps up means to lose market share permanently. Faced with losing market share, companies expanded. Companies therefore were profitable for only those times between when everybody begins to build new capacity and the time when the new capacity comes on stream. This discovery led to the solution.

The idea: The solution the young questioners proposed was a shift from the giant, ever-expanding “integrated” plant to a “mini-mill.” The end uses are the same as the integrated mill only the costs are substantially lower. A mini-mill can be built for one-tenth the cost of an integrated plant, uses heat only once and does not quench it, starts with steel scrap instead of ore, and ends up with one final product (e.g., beams, rods, etc.). The costs are less than one-half of the integrated process. The mini-mills offer modern technology, low labor costs, and target markets.

An executive stated that if these young men had not asked the right questions, we would still go on making steel the only way we knew. Anything but “big steel” was alien and strange. The executives couldn’t have been more stupefied, when they heard the solution, had archaeologists dug up a dinosaur wearing a flea collar.

A question checklist also helps you increase your observation and association abilities.

Car alarms didn’t stop thieves from shattering the window of one entrepreneur’s Porsche and stealing his radio. Using the question checklist, he drew a diagram of a car radio and decided that the real challenge was disguising the radio and not finding a fail-proof alarm system.

The solution was to somehow disguise and hide the radio. The question: “Suppose you find a problem related to yours and solved before, can you use its methods?” led him to think of the way the military camouflages items they want to disguise and hide. This association inspired his idea.

The idea: A fake front showing splayed wires and a gashed frame. Attached with velcro over the real radio, it creates the illusion that the real radio has already been ripped off.


Phoenix is a checklist of questions developed by the Central Intelligence Agency. It was designed to encourage agents to look at a challenge from many different angles. It’s like holding your challenge in your hand. You can turn it, look at it from underneath, see it from one view, hold it up to another position, imagine solutions, and really be in control of it.

Use the Phoenix checklist as a base to build your own personal checklist of questions. Collect good questions when you hear them from others and keep adding them to your own checklist. With the right questions, you can solve a challenge the way Sherlock Holmes would solve a crime; i.e., ask a number of questions, then suddenly turn, touch a finger to the head and ask a question that turns everything around. When that happens, you might say you “Sherlocked the challenge.”


The procedures are:

(1) Write your challenge. Isolate the challenge you want to think about. Write it to somebody else and commit yourself to an answer, if not the answer, by a certain date.

(2) Use the Phoenix checklist to dissect the challenge into as many different ways as you can by asking questions.

(3) Record your answers, information requests, solutions, and ideas for evaluation and analysis.



– Why is it necessary to solve the problem?

– What benefits will you receive 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? Make a model?

– Where are the boundaries of the problem?

– 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 and solved before, 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?


– 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 determine?

– 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 determine the correctness of each step?

– What creative thinking techniques can you use to generate ideas? How many different techniques?

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

– How many different ways have you tried to solve the problem?

-How many alternative ideas can you generate?

– What have others done?

– Can you intuit the solution? 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 what it is and none other?

– What milestones can best mark your progress?

– How will you know when you are successful?



(Michael Michalko is the highly-acclaimed author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Thinking Strategies of Creative Geniuses;  Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck, and Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work.


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