Have you ever wondered how some of the biggest-named innovators and influential business leaders of this generation can do what they do? Well, many of them — including people like Elon Musk and Jeff Bezos — follow an approach called “first principles thinking.”
So, what is first principles thinking? It’s essentially a way of breaking down problems into their fundamental truths. First principles thinking promotes the questioning of assumptions and encourages a deep understanding of the core principles that govern a specific problem.
In this article, we’ll learn about first principles thinking and how it works. We’ll discuss how it can affect product development and how organizations can implement it to change the way they think.
Though Elon Musk and other leaders have greatly popularized this concept for this generation, they did not invent it. They just follow it.
In fact, one of the greatest thinkers of all time, Aristotle, was the first to talk about this approach and believed that true knowledge is based on fundamental principles and not assumptions.
First principles thinking is a problem-solving approach that involves breaking down a complex system into its fundamental components, or basic principles, and then figuring out solutions for it from the ground up.
Reasoning by analogy involves using pre-existing principles and best practices decided by a group of individuals to come up with solutions to your problems.
Because of this, it’s vital to not follow herd mentality. First principles thinking challenges you to not act on pre-existing beliefs. Those go out the window, and you have to think about if these existing beliefs are valid or merely followed because others do so.
Implementing a first principles approach can help a product manager and their product team think more creatively and critically about product development. In order to do so, there are a few key things to follow:
It could be any issue, such as enhancing the functionality of an existing product, discovering opportunities for brand-new products, or adding new features to an existing product.
As an example, let’s say you’re on the product team helping build a fitness app. You notice that users stay consistent in using the app up to the 14-day mark, but then begin to drop off. The problem you want to solve is: “How can we keep our users engaged so that they continue to use our app long-term and to reach their fitness goals?”
Find the fundamental components of the issue you are attempting to resolve, such as customer need gaps, market trends, and technical problems, and break them down as small as you can. What exactly is the root issue here, ignore all of the other fluff surrounding it.
Going off the previous example, maybe you credit the problem of users dropping off from using your app to an issue with motivation and engagement. You conclude that the main pillars affecting these characteristics are: personalization, progress tracking, and social support. Understanding these basic building blocks will help you create effective strategies for boosting user motivation.
By questioning your assumptions about a problem, you may discover new and innovative solutions to your problem.
One common assumption that fitness apps and programs make is that offering more workout routines will keep users engaged. However, by challenging this assumption, you might discover that users are actually overwhelmed by too many options and need a more tailored experience that adapts to their preferences and progress.
This might involve conducting in-depth customer research, market analysis, or technical research or study to better understand the problem you are trying to solve as a product manager.
In our fitness app example, maybe you perform customer interviews as part of your research and figure out why exactly people begin to feel demotivated. You interview users at multiple stages of their fitness journeys and identify common patterns in what motivates them to keep consistent.
Evaluate each potential solution to determine its feasibility and the potential impact it can have.
After researching and analyzing, you might come up with a few potential solutions, like:
vTest the most viable solutions based on the results and iterate on your methods.
Once you’ve arrived on a solution, test it with a small group of users to gather feedback. For instance, if you’ve chosen to develop progress tracking, ask them how likely they are to share it on social media with an in-app generated summary photo. Based on their feedback, you can iterate on the solution and continue refining it until it effectively addresses the initial problem.
This method of thinking, while not so traditional, can help you and your team members drastically. Here is why:
This approach provides a deep understanding of the problem, as we are not just following someone else or their solutions, but are using our capabilities to look at the problem at a very granular level and come up with a solution.
The first principles approach allows you to look at a problem from all sides, break it down, and develop a solution.
The first principles approach can be applied to a wide range of problems and different industries as well. It doesn’t matter if you work in tech, in finance, or any other industry. You can implement first principles thinking to help change the way you solve problems.
As this approach breaks down an issue into the most basic components, it can help areas where there are opportunities to reduce costs and increase efficiency.
By questioning assumptions and analyzing problems from different angles, individuals can become more effective and innovative problem solvers.
Though it may sound all well and good, the first principles approach can also pose certain disadvantages.
The biggest is identifying the most relevant first principles for a given problem. Figuring that out takes work. It needs a deep understanding of the problem and its underlying principles, which can take much time and energy to comprehend.
The first principles way of thinking can also be time-consuming and resource-intensive. When deadlines are strict and budgets are tight, it may not be wise to implement this approach.
Further, biases may also creep in while applying the first principles approach. It requires an open and flexible mindset that can challenge fundamentally established beliefs.
And while the first principles way of thinking can be an innovative way to solve problems, we must keep in mind that it must be adapted to fit the needs of a specific problem.
In sum, first principles thinking can be a game changer for product managers seeking to innovate and tackle problems from the ground up. While it does come with its challenges and may not be suitable for every situation, embracing this approach can lead to a deeper understanding of problems and the creation of new, creative solutions. Happy problem solving!
Featured image source: IconScout
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