on June 21, 2022 Strategy Marketing Strategy strategy & problem solving

What Is First Principles Thinking? 3 Popular Approaches and How to Apply Them

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What do an NFL coach, a chef, and Elon Musk all have in common? 

They solve problems using first principles thinking.

Sometimes called “reasoning from first principles,” first principles thinking is the practice of questioning every assumption you think you know about a given problem, then creating new solutions from scratch. It’s one of the best ways to unlock creative solutions to complicated problems.  

Take the NFL coach, for example. They combine the basic rules of football with the capabilities of their players to create entirely new plays for their team. Because the coach understands the first principles that built the play, they are able to identify why it was successful or unsuccessful—and adjust as necessary. 

The same concept can apply to manufacturers and professional services businesses. Major company pain points and new processes can evolve from a team that deploys first principles thinking. Continue reading to learn how. 

What is the difference between first principles thinking and reasoning by analogy? 

First principles thinking requires you to break down previous assumptions and barriers of problems to create a completely innovative solution. 

In contrast, reasoning by analogy is solving problems based on prior assumptions and widely accepted best practices. 

For example, a chef uses first principles thinking to transform raw ingredients (first principles) into a totally new dish. Someone who doesn’t know how to cook will likely follow the instructions of a recipe, never deviating from the widely accepted instructions. Both will (probably) result in a good meal, but only one is truly unique. 

Techniques to establish first principles.  

It’s easy to define first principles thinking, but often not as easy to apply it. Here are a few ways you can establish first principles.  

1. Socratic questioning.

The Socratic method is a systematic approach to asking and answering questions. The goal is to inspire creativity, and separate knowledge from false assumptions. It generally follows this process:

  1. Clarify your thinking and explain the origins of your ideas. Why do I think this? Have I always felt this way?
  2. Challenge assumptions. How do I know this is true? What if I thought the opposite?
  3. Look for evidence. What is one example? What other information do we need?
  4. Consider alternative perspectives. How would others respond? How do I know I am correct?
  5. Examine consequences and implications. What if I am wrong? What are the consequences if I am?
  6. Question the original questions. Why did I think that? Was I correct? What conclusions can I draw from this process?

2. The five whys. 

Many adults might find children’s incessant “why” questions irritating, but their constant questioning is actually a natural example of thinking in first principles. Here’s what it might sound like: 

“It’s time to get ready for bed.”

“Why?”

“Because our bodies require sleep.”

“Why do we need sleep?”

“Because we’d die if we never slept.”

“Why would that make us die?”

“I don’t know; let’s look into it.”

Organizations can break down problems and processes using this same method. Eventually, you’ll arrive at a question you can’t answer—this is where you develop a new solution. 

3. Elon Musk’s three steps. 

Business magnate and investor, Elon Musk, has become a well-known advocate of first principles thinking. In fact, many of his innovations have been a result of breaking down problems into their first principles. Here are his three steps.

  1. Identify and define your current assumptions.
    • Ex: Growing my business will be too expensive.
  2. Break down the problem into its fundamental principles.
    • Ex: What do you need to grow a profitable business? I need to sell products or services to more customers. Does it have to cost a lot of money to sell to new customers? Not if I can access these new customers inexpensively. Who has this access and how can you create a win-win deal?
  3. Create new solutions from scratch. 
    • Ex: I could partner with other businesses that serve the same customer and split the profits.

How to improve your operations with first principles thinking.  

No matter your industry or position, you can leverage first principles thinking to solve problems. Has your organization always followed the same processes? Have they yielded new solutions or business? If not, why is that? 

Structure your quarterly or annual planning sessions with initial assumptions about project work, products, processes, and problems. Then, encourage your team to break down these assumptions with questions until you reach the root issue. How can you solve it in a new way?

If one of your teams has been working in a silo for a long period of time, add another team member to join (even temporarily). What questions does that new team member have? Are there processes or problems that could be creatively addressed?   

As an organization and as an individual, you will find growth outside of the norm. It’s time to question what has always been and develop unprecedented solutions to your problems. Who knows what you might solve.   

Learn how to solve your biggest problems with first principles thinking.

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Madison Filipiak

Madison Filipiak is a consultant at Ready North. She joined the agency in January 2021 with a background in content marketing. Madison is a 2018 graduate of the University of Mount Union, where she earned her degree in marketing and communications.