The Aristotle Model for Solving Complex Problems

One of the areas I explore in my efforts to find impactful solutions to modern problems is in the realm that I refer to as “The Wisdom of our Ancestors.”
I don’t like reinventing the wheel and I love shortening my, and others’, learning curves.
It’s a fact that people in every generation going back thousands of years face very similar challenges over and over and over again. While the specific details change based upon the times at a macro level the basic challenges remain the same.
It’s also a fact that there have been millions of women and men who, over the decades, centuries and even millennia have learned how to use their intelligence, creativity and industriousness to solve many of those problems in their time. Some of them have also documented them.
Aristotle was one of those folks.
In this edition of the Conscious Leadership Conversation I want to share the basics of one of his processes for solving complex problems which I have used with much success in my role as a leadership and organizational performance consultant.
Aristotle’s Model for Complex Problem Solving

A frequently used approach to solving a complex problem is to begin by asking 4 basic questions.

The 4 questions typically are:

How did it happen? i.e. What are the details of the incident?

What needs to be done to fix it? – i.e. What are the steps needed to effectively respond?

Why did it happen? –  i.e. What conditions allowed or caused it to happen?

Who needs to fix it? – i.e. Who do we need to assemble in order to resolve the issue?

Aristotle asked those same questions but he flipped their order and changed their meanings. He asked those questions in the following order and in the following way:

Who does it impact and who can help resolve it?

Why is it important to fix?

What is the root cause of the problem?

How do we effectively resolve the issue?

The following unpacks his model:

1. WHO does the problem impact and who can help resolve it? This speaks to the vital importance of both identifying and engaging those people most affected by the problem that occurred and those who are empowered to resolve it.

Often the same people are important to and involved in both sides of this question because who better to clearly define and describe the impact of a situation gone sideways AND to provide workable solutions than the people directly impacted? But it is also important to have empowered managers who can bring a big picture viewpoint to the discussion.

2. WHY is it important to fix? Not every problem needs to be fixed. This is especially true if there is little risk of the problem re-occurring or if the cost to fix it – in time, resources and/or money – exceeds the benefits of solving it.

Not all problems are created equal. It is important to assess and differentiate between gnats that irritate and bombs that detonate.

When exploring the WHY you also want to take into consideration the cost on morale, employee engagement and stress levels the problems is causing.

(NOTE: Never forget to factor in the impact on your human capital as well as the financial capital the problem is creating because it is your human capital that creates your financial capital.)

So, if you have the right WHO’s in the room and you facilitate a thoughtful impact vs cost assessment, the answers to this question will become clear.

3. WHAT is the root cause of the problem? One of the most effective and easy to understand ways to begin getting to the root cause of a problem is to use the “5 Why” process of Root Cause Analysis. Briefly, the basic concept is to ask the question “Why” 5 times on the way to finding the root cause culprit. Sometimes it may be necessary to ask more than 5 Whys and sometimes you may uncover the cause sooner. Each situation is different.

The way you can tell you have found the root cause is when you get to the solution that if implemented would solve the problem. In my experience I have almost always found the root cause by question 5; if not we keep going until we do.

See the image below for an example:

In this scenario the solution that will solve the problem is for the CFO to re-institute funding for developers. However, if that is not possible you must ask more WHY’s. At some point you will get to a point where a decision based upon company priorities will have to be made. Then you make your decision, which can often be a Sophie’s Choice. But you make it an move forward as a cohesive team.

4. HOW do we effectively resolve the issue? This is where the work you have put in to this point pays very big dividends.

You have assembled the right people. You have collectively, thoughtfully considered whether the “cost of the problem” justifies the time, effort and resources necessary to address it. (As leaders we must always look for the ROI on the deployment of our limited human and financial capital resources.)

And most important, is that you have collectively found and aligned upon both the root cause of the problem and the solution(s) to be implemented. You now can effectively focus your efforts with confidence and precision on the specific steps to be taken, by whom and when.

You facilitate this final step following the same process you have been using up to this point. Simply convene the collective genius, resources and energies of your team and leverage all of it to define what success means; the action items, roles, responsibilities and timelines that must be will deliver that success AND you must define the communication matrix needed to insure information, updates, complexities and issues are communicated regularly and effectively.

In other words: what will be reported on; how often; to whom by whom and using what format(s) i.e. face to face meetings, email reports, conference calls, video conferencing etc.


Then everyone grabs and oar; assumes their role and responsibilities and they get after it.


CONCLUSION: Leaders and managers who can learn, implement and then teach their organizations to become proficient at solving complex problems effectively and expeditiously are leaders who will always be in great demand and of great value.

If you would like to learn more about how to implement this process contact me to discuss a detailed training program that will give you the tools to immediately begin benefiting from Aristotle’s wisdom. 


  • PeterJ
    Posted January 23, 2020 3:44 pm 0Likes

    Root cause conscious
    It’s almost impossible to reach the consciousness of another person with Any Ideas contrary to that persons mental and emotional allegiances. You can give that person a new point of view, which will accomplish little unless the consciousness behind that mind and the emotions vitalize that new conviction. This is why bloodshed is used to make reveloutionary changes
    The civil war is a good example of brother fighting brother. One state will always win. Sometimes we have to witness the root cause still existing to breathe a conscious fixation back into the defeated state.

  • Larry Quick
    Posted January 23, 2020 11:03 pm 0Likes

    PART ONE: RCA works if you trust working in what you treat as a closed system and you rely on relatively simple solutions and reductive thinking in complex environments (Noting that closed systems are impossible in the whole systems environment that we really work and live within).

    In a closed system and denial of complexity thinking, you can assume that there is a root cause. And that is a fair call as long as you are willing to accept the risk of not fully understanding that there is complexity and there may be a multitude of causes that have been hidden behind the ‘root cause’ you are using as a starting point for a solution.

  • Larry Quick
    Posted January 23, 2020 11:04 pm 0Likes

    PART TWO: For instance, in Australia, it can be said that the root cause of the current fires is lightning or arson (reduce complexity, close the system and use reductive thinking to find the solution). And people have said this and used this as THE argument for how the fires started and how they may be contained.

    But the issue of the Australian fires is much more complex and much better addressed in a more complex view as a whole system. For those with a whole systems view, broader extreme weather events such as drought and the species of trees in Australia are some of the key elements of the whole system. As is broader climate change behind the drought and other types of extreme weather events in Australia.

  • Larry Quick
    Posted January 23, 2020 11:04 pm 0Likes

    PART THREE: The choice as to how you address an issue – RCA or complex systems thinking – is one of mindset, skill-set, and strategic focus and action. Use the wrong thinking and you will create more problems than you solve and shift the problem and the burden of resolution into the future for others to solve (more than likely as a higher cost).

    You only have to look at the climate deniers in the world to work out the social, economic and environmental costs of reductive thinking. They were a critical cause amongst many that caused immense damage from the fires. They not only failed to act but stopped others more understanding of the complexity of the potential fire situation. to act.

    Bottom line is …. be VERY cautious of RCA. And don’t forget that Aristotle’s thinking though wise at the time was from an age driven by an environment far less complex than that we live and work in today.

  • Jeffrey Deckman
    Posted January 29, 2020 8:07 pm 0Likes

    Hey Larry,

    Thanks for you comments. And I agree with you that systems thinking is incredibly valuable. As your powerful book: Disrupted: Strategy for Exponential Change makes clear.

    However, I don’t think that taking the 4 step approach defined prevents systems thinking principles from being applied.

    While step 3 calls for the application of the 5 Why process of RCA I don’t think asking Why 5 times derails or prevents the application of a systems thinking framework.

    I also have seen many organizational and operational problems solved without the strict use of systems thinking. In fact, many extremely complex problems have been effectively solved over thousand of years without the benefit of that technology.

  • Jeffrey Deckman
    Posted January 29, 2020 8:07 pm 0Likes

    So, in my experience, both have merit and both can be effective, depending upon the issue. There are situations where the Aristotle model works and there are those which are so complex where it won’t. Just as there are times when systems thinking is the most effective tool to use and others where it isn’t for a variety of reasons.

    I am also a believer that the Occam’s razor philosophy has merit and should be employed when determining the level of complexity of any process being used to resolve issues.

    Thanks for your contribution. It was good to hear from you.

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