Best Problem Solving Framework; First Principle Thinking

If you've ever studied the habits of Elon Musk before, you're likely familiar with the term First Principle Thinking. In this article, we're going to break this concept down further as we strongly feel that it should be used to solve any problem - business, or personal!

What is first-principle thinking?

It is a concept which allows individuals to break down complex problems into basic elements, and then resemble these elements from the ground up.

Too often, individuals look at the large problem at hand and just accept it for what it is. First-principle thinking bucks this trend by forcing the individual to actually understand why something operates in a certain way, subsequently allowing them to see what opportunity there is for improvement if they were to ever re-build the same thing again.

The quote which best describes first-principle thinking is below:

Everything that is not a law of nature is just a belief.

First principle thinking forces people to understand reality by starting with what is TRUE instead of what they intuitively perceive as being correct.

Why is first-principle thinking important?

Only someone who follows first principles can truly diagnose what went wrong in a situation.

If we never learn to pull a problem apart, test the assumptions and reconstruct it, we end up trapped in believing what others tell us - the classic "it's always been done this way".

The laziness of just accepting something for "what it is" works fine when processes and systems are operating correctly but can cause problems when things go wrong. If you do not know the root cause of how something works, it becomes extremely difficult to diagnose how to fix something when it breaks.

Examples of first-principle thinkers

  • Elon Musk - he figured that the only reason getting a rocket into space is so expensive is because people were stuck in an old mindset which did not hold up to first principles. Musk broke down the extremely complex concept of building a rocket and re-built this from the ground up, yielding a 10x saving along the way.

  • Chefs - They don't follow recipes. They connect a multitude of raw ingredients to create an individual taste.

  • Root cause thinkers - that annoying person in a meeting who always asks a lot of questions is usually a first-principle thinker. They don't just accept a process for what it is; they want to understand the actual root cause behind the process.

First-principle framework to solving problems

When faced with a problem, there are 2 things which you should immediately do:

  • Assumption Busting - You should immediately separate the facts from fiction. Determine what is actually true, and what your team are assuming.

ASS-U-ME makes an ass out of you and me!
  • The Five "WHYs" - To truly diagnose the root cause of a problem, continue to ask your team "WHY". It will often sound extremely annoying but we guarantee you that it will allow you to get to the root cause of the actual issue at hand. Quite often, the root cause of the problem will be vastly different to the superficial problem that was initially highlighted.

Be a Coach, not a Play Stealer!

The analogy that is used to best describe first principle thinkers is the coach of a football team. The coach is someone who curates strategies and plays which try to produce the best advantage for their team within the constraints of the principles that they are bound by (the laws of the game).

Whether the play goes right or wrong, the coach is always able to identify the root cause of the problem and remediate for next time.

Conversely, a play stealer is someone who just copies the plays of other coaches, tweaking them slightly in hope that they will fool the opposition. If a play goes wrong, they have no idea why and move onto the next play without further diagnosis. A play stealer takes all the accolades when things are going right, but goes missing when things go wrong.

A similar analogy can be used for code creators vs code copiers. Open-source technology allows code copier to easily steal the code of other code creators. This makes the code copier look great initially however they have no idea what to do when shit hits the fan!

Be a code creator people!

Ben the Bearded Man

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