What is First Principles and the simplest way to apply it effectively

First principles may not be a term new to you if you’re a fan of Elon Musk. He has shared this thinking as the approach he uses when understanding challenges and coming up with solutions for SpaceX and Tesla.

Image credit: Yichuan Cao/NurPhoto via Getty Images

I will be sharing my understanding of what does First Principles mean, why is it important, how can we potentially apply this, and who are some interesting leaders who are known to have used it and what their context is when applying this approach to problem solving.

What does First Principles mean?

According to Wikipedia, a first principle is a basic proposition or assumption that cannot be deduced from any other proposition or assumption.

What Elon Musk has shared is that if you boil things down to the most fundamental truths you can imagine and you reason up from there, you can figure out if something really makes sense or if it’s just what everybody else is doing.

Based on these two definitions, I would define a First Principles as basic truths that can no longer be questioned.

What is the value of First Principles thinking?

To know a truth to its fundamental level. And being able to reason an assumption or problem to its root cause and create better solutions. There’s a lot of things we may experience today, that’s seen or perceived only from its surface level or what others have said.

For entrepreneurs like Elon Musk, if we were to simply approach problems based on analogy and how something else was done, he wouldn’t have been able to discover alternative ways to space travel.

In User Experience (UX), without having the mindset to conduct research to understand user problems with enough depth, it would be quite difficult for designers to come up with effective solutions.

In Scrum, which is an Agile framework that practices Empiricism, without transparency and inspection of the work, outcomes and blockers a team may be facing, a team would not be able to adapt and change how they work.

In the relationships we have with people, how much do we know about ourselves and another person do we have in order to come into a conclusion that “This person does not like me?”, when it might have been as assumption?

Use Five Whys to apply First Principles

One simple technique to apply the First Principles would be to use the Five Whys analysis, which explores the root of an assumption or problem by repeating the question “Why?”.

With each reason or answer forming the basis of the next question, the “five” in the name derives from the observation on the number of iterations needed to develop a deeper understanding of an assumption or problem.

Developed by Sakichi Toyoda and applied within the Toyota Motor Corporation for its manufacturing, it is a critical component of problem-solving training, delivered as part of the induction into the Toyota Production System. This analysis technique has used beyond Toyota, and is now used within Kaizen, Lean Manufacturing, Six Sigma and also UX research.

How to practice the Five Whys Analysis

Here’s a demonstration on how we can practice the Five Whys analysis, starting with an assumption for someone’s reason of wanting to work from home.

1st Why: I can have more time flexibility in my life.

2nd Why: I will be able to cut down my time spent on commuting to work.

3rd Why: I will be able to spend quality time at home.

4th Why: I wish to spend more time with my wife and children.

5th Why: I wish to develop a stronger relationship with my family.

This demonstration could be taken to a sixth, seventh or higher level, but five iterations is generally enough to get to a root of an assumption or problem. The real root cause should point towards something that is not working well, a potential gap or a process that might have failed.

What to look out for when practicing

Some of these tips can help you conduct a better Five Whys analysis:

  • Write down problems in a understandable way
  • Distinguish causes from symptoms
  • Do not jump into conclusions
  • Base statements on facts and knowledge

Some Success Stories of First Principles

Elon Musk and SpaceX

Image credit: Reuters

An issue that Elon Musk was trying to find a solution was the cost of access to space as rockets got really expensive with its increasing costs over the years.

Elon did his research on rockets and did a first principles analysis of a rocket, leading him to break down the materials used in the rocket. He noticed that there is a gigantic difference between the cost of buying the raw materials and the final price of a finished rocket.

He felt that there was something wrong and wondered why wouldn’t people try to make rocket usability work to reduce the cost of access to space. He realised that when he asked, people shared the Space Shuttle as a reason of why rocket reusability does not work.

He decided not to use a single case example that others have used as an analogy, and instead decided to find solutions to design and build better rockets that are reusable, leading to the achievements that SpaceX has achieved today.

Lee Kuan Yew and Singapore

Image credit: Calvin Wong/Reuters/Landov

In a past interview with Lee Kuan Yew, founding father of modern Singapore, he has shared that he has worked on First Principles to build Singapore as a country.

“The first principle of any civilisation is orderly living and the rearing of the young.” — Lee Kuan Yew, 1977

He believed in social peace and stability within the country with no fight between the races or religions. He believed in fair shares for all, and that everybody is a home owner. He brought in investments, with nothing except strong education, skilled manpower and infrastructures. He believed in creating a healthy society that gives everybody a chance to achieve its maximum potential.

He wished for Singapore to be like America in terms of its inventiveness and creativeness, but not with the drug and gun problems it had. While he likes to read about given by theoreticians on democracy, he does not accept those theories as truth.

Instead, his pragmatic and realistic approach to do what works and change what doesn’t has influenced the nation and its society to rapidly transition from a developing third world country into a developed first world country within a single generation.

Start practicing the First Principles

I hope whatever I have shared based on my knowledge has given you the understanding, insights and inspiration to approach the assumptions and problems with the First Principles and the Five Whys analysis.

With this, we will be able to understand the fundamental truths so that we can have clearer and deeper understanding of the things and differentiate them from the analogies and surface level symptoms we face from day to day.

I am a UX Designer with a strong passion to fuse frameworks of Self-Awareness and Agility together — iamthye.com