Design Your Own C.I.A

One of the best ideas I think I’ve come up with as a result of my research on organizing and productivity for high performance is the need to create what I call your Core Information Architecture (C.I.A). It sounds quite technical but by the end of this post I hope you’ll agree it’s a simple yet integral component to how you design the organizing system that helps you manage your life and work.

The idea was inspired by intersecting two different principles:

  1. S.P.A.C.E. – from Julie Morgenstern
  2. The Six Perspectives Model – from David Allen

Let me explain (or remind) to you these two separate but related ideas.

The S.P.A.C.E. Methodology

Julie created this easy to remember approach, which breaks down as follows:

  1. Sort
  2. Purge
  3. Assign a home
  4. Containerize
  5. Equalize

In several of her books, Julie explains how this five-step process can be used to organize and manage both things and time.

Julie explains that the “…key to succeeding with the SPACE formula is do to every one of the steps, and most importantly, do them in order’.

I’ll come back to how we are going to use this idea to organize information at a macro level in your life and business in a moment.

The Six Perspectives Model

The first thing to note is that this is my condensed name / interpretation and model adapted from what David originally called “The Six-Level Model for Reviewing Your Own Work”, which is based on a flying analogy, comprised of:

  • 50,000+ feet  Life (your purpose, values, vision)
  • 40,000 feet     3 Year Goals
  • 30,000 feet     1 Year Objectives
  • 20,000 feet     Roles & Responsibilities
  • 10,000 feet     Current Projects
  • Runway          Current Actions (tasks, calendar appointment)

What I am most interested herein is the 20,000 feet reference to roles and responsibilities, which Stephen Covey also emphasized in his equally significant book “7 Habits of Highly Effective People”.

Core Information Architecture (C.I.A)

I’m going to focus on the idea of how these two ideas intersect in a small to medium sized business setting. If you’d like to use this philosophical approach for a larger organization or your life, I trust that you’ll be able to see how to do so by following the same steps below.

 Step 1 – SORT

So let’s start with SORT. The kinds of data and information that most businesses have to process, manage and store could be classified as follows, for example:

  • Strategic
  • Legal
  • Financial
  • Team
  • Client / Customer
  • Marketing
  • Sales
  • Projects
  • Products
  • Systems
  • Suppliers
  • Operations

What you need to do in this stage is identify what is important to you. You then group similar items. Finally you decide on a name (label) for each group.

As you can see, I took a functional approach, based on the kinds of subjects I had studied during my MBA. However, the reason that I advocate this approach is that it reinforces the importance of “Roles and Responsibilities” – the 20,000 feet perspective – on how I think about organizing our work and the resources required to get that work done.

 Step 2 – PURGE

My preference here is to maintain a list of up to nine different groups. So with a list of twelve identified, this requires further refinement (combining of groups) to create a shorter list.

My actual refined list that I designed and have now used for the past decade is as follows:

  • Clients
  • Finances
  • Marketing
  • Products
  • Sales
  • Strategy
  • Systems
  • Suppliers
  • Team

This required mentally reclassifying Legal under Financial, which was achieved by estimating / realizing that we don’t have many things in our business that don’t fall under one of those other functional areas / groups. Likewise, I decided that projects run across many of the categories and could be managed therein rather than requiring their own macro category.

During this stage, it’s also useful to consider what information you may have been filing and storing, that you don’t actually need to any more. Some information can be simply discarded (or shredded). Other information can be archived offsite or electronically for future reference.


Now it’s time to take all the items you’re keeping and decide precisely where, within each zone, you’re going to store them – which shelf, which drawer, which side of the bed.

How that translates into managing information is:

  • Place your most used groups towards the top of the list
  • Intentionally control their order by using numbers

The shorter list of nine categories I provided above in Step 2 can now be further organized – beyond their default order, which is alphabetical, as follows:

  1. Clients
  2. Team
  3. Finances
  4. Marketing
  5. Sales
  6. Systems
  7. Products
  8. Suppliers
  9. Strategy


Containers make it easy to keep your categories of items grouped and separated within their assigned homes so retrieval, cleanup, and maintenance are a breeze.

In organizing information, this translates into creating containers under each of these core categories, as required. For example, we have a sub-folder labeled with each clients’ name under “1. Clients”. We have different folders for our website, blog, campaigns, brand, brochures, etc under “4. Marketing”.

Julie also makes the point that one of the reasons a lot of people don’t use their organising system consistently is that they don’t take the time and effort to make it aesthetically pleasing. For example, assigning a different colour to each of your core categories can help you quickly, mentally change hats. We use yellow for “1. Clients”. So every time I pick up a physical yellow manilla folder it helps put me in client facing mode.

 Step 5 – EQUALIZE

Julie makes a useful analogy in that “…as you drive off in your car, you don’t just set your steering wheel in one position and ‘lock’ it in place until you get to your destination.”

We need to constantly and naturally monitor and make tiny adjustments to our organizing system over time.

You can do this in practical terms by simply renaming and / or reordering (by renumbering) your folders and sub-folders.

The Application

There are five main areas where we use our Core Information Architecture at nLIVEn:

  1. Email: we create the nine core categories as folders in Outlook
  2. Current Work: we use the same approach via Dropbox to share our current work, which syncs between individual hard disks via the cloud
  3. Archiving: we also mirror the nine categories on our office server for archiving reference materials from past projects
  4. Collaborating: we using these nine categories inside of Nozbe, our task and project management platform of choice.
  5. Reference: we use these nine categories within our physical filing cabinets.

This final application deserves further consideration. The greatest danger we have consistently seen across a broad cross section of clients using task and project management software (like Asana, Basecamp, OmniFocus, Wunderlist, Things, ToDoist and Nozbe) is that it can easily become overwhelming. Freeing up psychic RAM, as David Allen metaphorically described it, by getting all that ‘stuff’ out of our heads and into a software application can quickly start to feel unmanageable.

The two primary ways to approach designing the architecture of how you manage tasks and projects in one of these platforms are:

  1. A Project Based Architecture
  2. A Roles & Responsibilities Based Architecture

ToDoist and OmniFocus for example allow you to nest projects, within projects, within projects, in terms of creating your approach to organizing information.

Nozbe does not allow you to nest projects within projects. Therefore, I’ve found using a roles and responsibilities based architecture, using the nine categories we’ve shared herein, as a way to limit the core information architecture to something we can see on one page (screen) preferable – see the screenshot below.



When we click on “1. Clients” for example, we can then see a list of projects and tasks related to clients that our team is currently engaged with – providing a hybrid of a 10,000 feet and runway view.

Other upcoming projects and tasks, not currently in play, which David Allen would call “Someday/Maybe” items, can either be parked in a tenth category within Nozbe or incubated elsewhere (which we prefer at nLIVEn and use Evernote for).

The Advantages & Benefits

The advantages of adopting a single, shared information architecture across our enterprise is that it makes it quick and easy to navigate a colleague’s information. This is useful when they are sick, on annual leave or job sharing. Obviously, for managing sensitive information, password protection to an individual computer or document may be required to maintain the benefits of a common approach to organizing information.

Perhaps the greatest yet least visible benefit of designing, implementing and maintaining a Core Information Architecture in your life or business is that it facilitates learning and thereby enables adapting – at an individual, team and organizational levels.

More Productivity Ideas From nLIVEn

If you enjoyed this article, you’ll probably also like The Art Of The Brief; another example of the high-performance techniques we use to train and coach our clients that help enliven high-performance for individuals and team.

Explore Additional Resources

In this blog post we mentioned the following resources:

  • Book: Organizing from the Inside Out by Julie Morgentern (page 59)
  • Book: Getting Things Done by David Allen (page 51)
  • Book: 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey
  • Website / App: Nozbe   Learn more here

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