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First Principles Thinking

This piece by Noah Brier on first principles thinking really struck a chord when I read it and has been going round in my head ever since. Noah quotes from Elon Musk, who draws a distinction between the common use of analogy in business (we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing) and first principles thinking (where 'you boil things down to the most fundamental truths…and then reason up from there'). The latter is, says Noah, the idea of finding the atomic components of a problem and solving from that start point instead of using existing assumptions. This kind of thinking seems to be characteristic of most truly innovative ideas and a way of finding step change concepts rather than iterative ones.

It struck me how typical it is for the strart point in companies to incorporate assumptions that build up over time but are never truly tested, and how difficult it is to break out of these assumed constraints when the prevailing weight of opinion, relationship capital, and organisational habits within a company all act to support them. It was interesting that Noah mentioned a talk he gave about how best to work with designers in the piece:

"I think encouraging designers to be first principles thinkers is key to getting the best work possible. By this I mean the best way to work with a talented designer is to define the core components of the problem and let them solve up from there." 

In The Game Changer, P & G CEO A.G Lafley talks about how business schools tend to focus on inductive thinking (based on directly observable facts) and deductive thinking (logic and analysis, typically based on past evidence) whereas design schools emphasize abductive thinking – imagining what could be possible. There's a good chance I think, that as companies grow the balance between these three dynamics becomes skewed and we need to work harder to create more space for abductive thinking.

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