According to Aristotle, first principles are “the first basis from which a thing is known.” From there we can see, the first principle thinking is to break down problems and see them from the most fundamental perspective. It is about asking questions and creating solutions by combining those basic elements together. Once the “truth” of the question has appeared, you can find out the reasons and the root cause of the problem and propose a solution from there.
Reasoning by first principles helps to remove the impurity of assumptions and conventions, it is a good way to create innovation. The essentials that are left allow you to really focus on your thinking and what you have seen from there. Nowadays, this kind of reasoning is best known through Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla and SpaceX.
Most people tend to think with our intuition which is based on our prior experience, which is analogy-based reasoning. In fact, we do not know as much as we think we do, so you can say that thinking by intuition is not a wise choice. We are so used to think in the way of, “I do it because that’s how others do it” or “no one has done it before so it must not be a good idea to start”. Those fixed methodologies or blind faith can result in trapping ourselves in the old, traditional loop that we cannot create any innovative breakthrough.
One of the examples of analogy reasoning is that, when we are interested in trying a new restaurant, the core reason for us wanting to try something new is that it has something similar to the one we’ve visited and tried before, most importantly is that we liked the food there. On contrary, if a restaurant has something similar to the one that we unlike, no matter its food or ambience, we most likely will resist trying there even if someone recommended it. So, it is easy for our minds to compare something unknown to known. It is undeniably a good method of persuasion, but it only provides us with a surface level of conclusions, that is why innovation rarely comes from analogy-based reasoning.
However, by using the first principle thinking, everything can be broken into the fundamental level, and we can actually see that there are many things that we thought cannot be achieved, can be achieved, and it is also possible to do something that no one has ever done before. By realizing it, that is when a business come up with innovative ideas and products.
One of the few techniques to establish first principle thinking is Socratic questioning, it is a disciplined questioning process. Apart from normal discussions, Socratic questioning aims to find out the first principle in a systematic manner. This method generally follows the following steps: (i) Find the problem; (ii) Clarify the problem; (iii) Breakdown the problem; (iv) Solve the problem; (v) Question the questions and reiterate when needed. Breaking down the questions into small bits and find out a solution to each of them will help you to achieve the first principle thinking.
First principle thinking can be employed in our daily life. We always receive a lot of opinions from others, on what we should do and what is good for us. However, that is not what we want, if we simply accept the things that people tell us, then we are just inheriting what had been inherited by them from others, we are simply just using their analogies and conventions, and living in the shadow of others.
When we step back and start to adapt the first principle thinking, we can see more possibilities on what can be achieved and improved. Instead, we won’t fall under the trap of seeing problems the same way as others see the problem, we can provide eye-opening perspectives that can lead to innovation and creativeness.
Clayton Christensen’s research mentioned three aspects of innovation that businesses need to master: (i) Doing more with less (efficiency innovations); (ii) Continuous improvements on products (sustaining innovations); (iii) Creating brand new, potentially self-disruptive products (disruptive innovations). So how one can achieve all three of them when meeting one of them is already challenging enough?
As innovation means to break existing rules or systems and create new ones, to unlock and establish new values to customers and businesses. A systematic approach is crucial in this kind of situation in order to achieve innovations. It requires first principle reasoning, to break down problems and ideas into fundamental truths as we mentioned before. Following with the reasoning up from that foundation allows you to see new solutions to existing problems, and ultimately achieve innovations that we are all seeking.