First-principles thinking – sometimes called reasoning from first principles – is used to reverse-engineer complex problems and encourage creativity. It involves breaking down problems into basic elements and reassembling them from the ground up. Elon Musk is among the strongest proponents of this way of thinking.
|Definition||First-principles thinking is a problem-solving and decision-making approach that involves breaking down complex problems or ideas into their most fundamental or basic components, starting from foundational principles or truths. It was popularized by physicist and inventor, Isaac Newton, and is often used in various fields, including science, engineering, entrepreneurship, and innovation. The goal is to gain a deeper understanding of a subject and to develop creative solutions or innovations by building knowledge from the ground up, without relying on existing assumptions or conventional wisdom.|
|Key Concepts||– Fundamental Principles: The approach starts with identifying and understanding the fundamental principles or facts related to a problem or concept. |
– Deconstruction: It involves deconstructing a complex issue into its constituent parts or basic elements.
– Independent Thinking: First-principles thinking encourages independent and critical thinking, challenging established assumptions.
– Creativity and Innovation: It fosters creativity by allowing individuals to recombine foundational knowledge in novel ways to arrive at innovative solutions.
– Cost-Efficiency: In business and engineering, it can lead to more cost-efficient solutions as it questions the necessity of existing components or processes.
|Characteristics||– Rooted in Fundamental Knowledge: The approach relies on knowledge rooted in fundamental truths and facts. |
– Analytical and Critical: It involves analytical thinking and questioning established assumptions.
– Customizable: First-principles thinking is highly adaptable and can be applied to various domains and challenges.
– Time-Consuming: It can be time-consuming, especially when deconstructing complex problems, but often leads to more robust solutions.
– Innovation Driver: Commonly used by innovators and entrepreneurs to break new ground and disrupt industries.
|Implications||– Deep Understanding: It promotes a deep and thorough understanding of the subject matter. |
– Innovation: By challenging existing assumptions, it can lead to groundbreaking innovations and creative solutions. – Cost Optimization: In business and engineering, it can result in cost optimization by eliminating unnecessary components or processes.
– Disruption: First-principles thinking often leads to disruptive ideas and approaches that challenge the status quo.
– Learning Mindset: Requires a continuous learning mindset to keep questioning and evolving one’s understanding.
|Advantages||– Innovative Solutions: It fosters innovation and the development of unconventional solutions. |
– Robust Problem Solving: Leads to more robust and effective problem-solving.
– Efficiency: In engineering and business, it can optimize processes and reduce costs.
– Independent Thinking: Encourages independent and critical thinking.
– Customizability: Applicable to a wide range of fields and challenges.
|Drawbacks||– Time-Consuming: The process can be time-consuming, especially when dealing with complex issues. |
– Requires Knowledge: It relies on a strong foundation of knowledge and facts.
– Not Always Practical: In some situations, relying on existing knowledge or heuristics may be more practical.
– Risk of Overanalysis: Overanalysis can lead to paralysis by analysis, where individuals get stuck in the deconstruction phase and fail to take action.
– Initial Effort: It may require significant effort and mental energy to break down complex problems into first principles.
|Applications||– Science and Engineering: Used in scientific research and engineering to develop new technologies and solve complex problems. |
– Entrepreneurship: Entrepreneurs apply first-principles thinking to create innovative products or services and disrupt established industries.
– Finance and Investing: In finance, it can help in fundamental analysis and investment decision-making.
– Product Design: Designers use it to rethink product designs and features from the ground up.
– Problem Solving: Applicable to a wide range of problem-solving scenarios across different domains.
|Use Cases||– Space Exploration: SpaceX founder Elon Musk applied first-principles thinking to reduce the cost of space travel. By reevaluating the cost of individual components, he made space exploration more affordable. |
– Electric Vehicles: Tesla used this approach to design electric vehicles with longer battery life and better performance, challenging traditional automotive assumptions.
– Renewable Energy: Innovations in renewable energy technologies often start with a reexamination of energy generation and storage principles.
– Medical Research: In medical research, scientists may apply first-principles thinking to understand the fundamental biological processes underlying diseases, leading to novel treatments.
– Entrepreneurship: Entrepreneurs use it to identify market opportunities and develop disruptive business models.
Understanding first-principles thinking
First-principles thinking has been employed by many greater thinkers over the years, including military strategist John Boyd and ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle.
In modern times, Elon Musk is the thinker most associated with the concept.
When the entrepreneur attempted to source rockets for an expedition to Mars, he ran into a major challenge right away.
After consulting with several companies, Musk learned the cost of a single rocket would be an astronomical $65 million.
This presented a major obstacle to his ambitions, so he used first-principles thinking to reframe the problem.
“Physics teaches you to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. So I said, okay, let’s look at the first principles. What is a rocket made of? Aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, plus some titanium, copper, and carbon fiber. Then I asked, what is the value of those materials on the commodity market? It turned out that the materials cost of a rocket was around 2% of the typical price”,
Musk would later remark.
Everyone knows that SpaceX was born soon after. However, the reasons for establishing the company are perhaps more interesting.
Instead of spending tens of millions of dollars on rockets, Musk decided to create SpaceX so he build the rockets himself using cheaper raw materials.
Fundamentally, first-principles thinking encourages individuals to think like scientists who do not assume anything to be true.
The method requires actively questioning every assumption one has regarding a problem or situation and creating new knowledge from the ground up.
Indeed, first principles can be described as basic assumptions that cannot be reduced or questioned any further.
At this point, creativity and innovation begin.
Engaging in first-principles thinking
To harness the power of first-principles thinking, simply work through the following steps:
Identify and then challenge your assumptions
The next time you are faced with a problem or challenge, write down long-held assumptions about them.
If you are trying to lose weight, you might assume you don’t have enough time to do so.
If you are trying to grow a business, you might assume it can’t be done without a large sum of money.
Challenge your beliefs.
How do you know an assumption is true? What would happen if you believed the opposite?
Separate the problem into its fundamental principles
What are the most basic truths or elements of your problem?
Asking powerful questions is one way to identify these truths or elements.
When Musk was faced with historically expensive battery pack manufacturing, he used first-principles thinking to break the problem down.
He asked himself what the constituent parts of a battery were and how much every part was worth if purchased separately on a commodities exchange.
Create new solutions
With the constituent parts identified, how can they be recombined in a different way to produce something new and insightful?
Someone who believes they have no time for losing weight could try less frequent, high-intensity workouts to burn fat.
A budding entrepreneur could joint-venture with a high-profile player in their industry to share costs and promote themselves to a new audience.
At this point, it’s important to be bold and courageous.
As Musk once said, “Good ideas are always crazy until they’re not.”
Specific techniques that enable the establishment of first principles
Here are two specific techniques that enable a practitioner to establish first principles.
Socratic questioning is a way to arrive at first principles via robust analysis. The disciplined technique is used to reveal underlying assumptions, establish truths, and separate ignorance from knowledge.
The key difference between Socratic questioning and natural conversation is that the former is more systematic. To that end, the individual is encouraged to move through the following steps with several introspective questions attached to each:
- Clarify your thinking and explain how you arrived at an idea – What exactly do I think? Why do I think it?
- Challenge your assumptions at all costs – How I can verify this is true? What would happen if I believed the opposite to be the case?
- Search for evidence – Can I support my assertions with reputable sources?
- Consider alternative points of view – How do I know I am correct? What do others believe?
- Examine consequences and their implications – What are the ramifications in the event I am wrong?
- Question the questions – Why did I think what I thought? Was that line of thinking correct? What conclusions can I draw from this process?
Socratic questioning avoids a tendency to reason by analogy because it reduces the reliance on intuition and prevents a strong emotional response.
The Five Whys (otherwise known as “Because I Said So”)
Since children are naturally curious, they instinctively reason from first principles without conscious effort. This sense of wonder fades as children become adults, which, to some extent, is why first principles thinking has to be “relearned”.
Children play their own version of the Five Whys root cause technique in their attempt to understand why adults act in certain ways or say certain things. By the fifth “Why?”, the parent is exasperated and retorts with a firm “Because I said so!”
Unfortunately, this retort is as useful to children as it is to adults. In the corporate world, employees who want to accomplish something see it as a point of resistance that slows their endeavors down.
This approach is also counterproductive since after two or three questions, the individual under repeated questioning becomes lost but cannot quantify why. Confronted by their ignorance of the topic at hand, they resort to self-defence, which, like resistance, kills opportunities for collaboration or innovation.
Can you imagine if someone used the “Because I said so” line on Elon Musk or Charlie Munger? Musk would build a billion-dollar business from scratch just to make a point, while Munger would no doubt profit from their ignorance.
To arrive at first principles thinking as adults, we must never stop at another’s ignorance. When we let someone else tell us what is possible (or what is not possible), we outsource our thinking. We adopt their possibilities and conventions, reason by analogy, and conform to society.
Clear the clutter, think like a child, and rebuild your thinking system from the ground up. Most importantly of all, be inquisitive and never satisfied with someone else’s answer.
First principles vs. analogy
In some instances, first principles thinking can be extremely powerful.
That applies in circumstances where most competition is fought around the same playfield, in what’s known as a red ocean.
In that context, most players in the business landscape look at similar solutions to the same problem.
Instead, first principles thinking can be powerful to break through and create a new business playfield.
In that context, by creating a whole new product, a moonshot, a company can blow the competition off the ground, moving in a blue ocean.
That’s where first principles thinking works well.
However, in many other cases, an analogy can be a powerful thinking tool.
An analogy is the opposite of first principles thinking, as in the latter case, you start from a blank slate, whereas in the former case, you can look at what’s been done before to improve it.
An analogy can be applied vertically, which might create an incremental improvement.
Take the case of a company that looks at another company’s products and makes it 2x better by reasoning by analogy and yet applying a twist to it.
But, here, things get interesting; an analogy can also be applied horizontally, where you take an application in a field and make it into another field.
Take the case of a company that borrows an idea from a geographical market and applies it to another geography.
Or yet, the case of a company taking an idea from a player in a market niche and applying it to another market niche.
For instance, for years, startups have applied the idea of “Uber for X and Y,” thus using the Uber business model analogy to disrupt other verticals.
In short, also via analogy, you can achieve great business outcomes. As not always, first principles thinking is well suited.
Leveraging first principles thinking in design strategy
Design thinking is the process of building incredible products with a customer-centered approach.
Thus combining first principles thinking to design thinking might be extremely powerful.
Let me explain how.
Before we explain the first principles of design thinking, it may be useful to define the concept of first principles.
The idea, which encourages practitioners to think like a scientist, was first mentioned by Aristotle over two thousand years back.
Today, first principles is the predominant way in which physicists and philosophers, in particular, question assumptions about a problem.
They do this by breaking the problem into smaller and smaller fundamental truths.
Consider this article, for example.
The article is comprised of paragraphs, and the paragraphs are comprised of sentences.
The sentences are made up of words and the words of letters.
The letter is the fundamental truth upon which all else rests because it cannot be broken down further.
UX designers use first principles thinking often.
Whether consciously or subconsciously, they break down problems into solutions.
In his 2011 book Design thinking: Understanding How Designers Think and Work, author Nigel Cross made the connection between design thinking and first principles based on research of designers in various fields:
“Three key strategic aspects of design thinking appear to be common across all these studies: (1) taking a broad ‘systems approach’ to the problem, rather than accepting narrow problem criteria; (2) ‘framing’ the problem in a distinctive and sometimes rather personal way; and (3) designing from ‘first principles’”.
Despite the apparent harmony between design thinking and first principles, it would be unwise to assume that the two are present in every organization.
In some companies, poor culture and basic human psychology prevent designers from using first principles. Many instead default to reasoning by analogy, which aims to solve problems with widely-held assumptions and beliefs.
How to apply first principles in design thinking
Consider a music streaming platform that wants a designer to create a new feature that will enable users to create groups.
If the designer is using first principles, the natural inclination should be to question whether users have a true need for this feature.
To avoid a scenario where they ignores first principles and design the feature anyway, there are three simple steps to follow.
Step 1 – Identify the assumption
In this case, the assumption is that active users want to create groups to share their favorite music with multiple friends simultaneously.
Step 2 – Break down the assumption into fundamental truths
The designer starts by determining what constitutes an active user.
They ask the product owner who then directs them to someone in analytics.
Eventually, the designer learns that an active user is one that uses the streaming service for at least three hours per day.
The next question writes itself: how does the designer then determine whether people who listen to music for three hours a day want a group chat feature?
Direct, qualitative data should be the first port of call, but ideally, users should also be given the chance to vote on features they want to see in the app.
Based on a poll and user interviews, the designer learns that while active users do want groups, the actual user need is a group that enables them to split the cost of a subscription.
In other words, the assumption that groups were for friends to share music recommendations was incorrect.
Step 3 – Devise the new solution
By now it is obvious that the designer has used first principles thinking to discover the fundamental truths about a user need.
This is a rather simple example, but the technique is no less effective when applied to more complex problems.
When this sort of thinking becomes standard practice, the company itself becomes more innovative and competitive.
How to apply first principles thinking to entrepreneurship
First principles thinking can be extremely powerful also in the entrepreneurial world.
Indeed, in some circumstances, it can lead to so-called paradigm shifts.
Or changes in the business playbook.
Indeed, one of the most exciting aspects of the business world is the fact that its rules can be, from time to time, rewritten.
When the rules are rewritten, a paradigm shift happens. It means that what worked until that moment might stop working in the new landscape, but the old playbook might actually be detrimental.
Take the case of the paradigm shift we had from linear to platform business models.
On the other hand, making a shift toward becoming a platform requires a complete rehaul of the playbook at hand.
As you need to move from “how do we sell our products” to “how do we enable others to sell their products” or from “how do we build something valuable for customers?” to “how do we create the environment to enable others to build something compelling for customers.”
When you change the underlying question and quest, it changes the whole business playbook.
From that standpoint, therefore, first principles thinking can be powerful, as it helps redefine the fundamental question that lies underneath.
First principles thinking examples in business
To emphasize the importance of first principles thinking in business, let’s describe one hypothetical and one real-world example and compare each to the much less effective strategy of reasoning from analogy.
Auto industry entrepreneurship
Scenario: A business wants to create a website where consumers can purchase a new vehicle for a low price and it have delivered to their home. The company also wants to employ staff who can carry out visual and technical inspections of the vehicle on the consumer’s behalf.
If the consumer never has to leave home, they can also avoid the stressful process of having to negotiate a price at the dealership and be subject to pushy sales tactics.
Reasoning from analogy: Most new cars are purchased from dealerships. Instead of allowing customers to buy a vehicle online, the entrepreneur considers whether it could use the website as a way for consumers to chat with staff and agree on a price beforehand.
The consumer could then visit the dealership to take care of any formalities such as registration and paperwork. Alternatively, this paperwork (and the car itself) could be delivered to the customer’s home by a member of staff.
Reasoning from first principles: Irrespective of whether consumers buy new cars online or offline, the entrepreneur concludes that the traditional car dealership is no more than a middle-man that facilitates the sale.
They consider two alternative solutions. The first and most courageous involves starting a company that manufactures cars. However, this is later determined to be too complex and expensive. The second, more realistic choice involves bypassing dealerships and purchasing directly from the manufacturer to reduce costs.
Dutch bicycle manufacturer
Scenario: In this real-world example, the Dutch bicycle manufacturer VanMoof found that the bikes it shipped to customers often arrived in the mail damaged.
This was a significant problem for the company because its bikes occupied the premium end of the market and were fitted with fragile electronics. What’s more, VanMoof had also set a goal to sell 90% of its bike online by the end of 2020.
Reasoning from analogy: The most obvious course of action would be for the company to liaise with its shippers and ensure the freight was handled with more care. Other obvious choices include increasing the quality or quantity of packaging foam or making the bike components more resistant to dents and scratches.
Reasoning from first principles: Ultimately, VanMoof used first principles thinking to arrive at an ingenious solution. On each of the boxes that contained the bikes, the company printed a picture of a flatscreen television.
When shippers believed they were transporting a television, they tended to be more careful with customer orders. In an interview with The Verge, VanMoof creative director Bex Rad noted that instances of bike damage were reduced by 70-80% almost overnight.
VanMoof kept its strategy a secret for a time to increase its effectiveness until it was exposed by a user on Twitter.
- First-principles thinking helps individuals reverse engineer complex problems and think creatively.
- First-principles thinking has been popularized by Elon Musk, who has used the strategy to reverse engineer the rocket and battery pack manufacturing process.
- First-principles thinking requires that we identify and then challenge our sometimes long-held assumptions around problems. We must then separate problems into fundamental elements and combine them in useful ways to create viable solutions.
Connected Thinking Frameworks