First principles thinking: a better way to innovate

Elon Musk

Elon Musk (Photo credit: jdlasica)

“If it’s a sure bet, we’re not interested,” – Jay Schnitzer, former director of Darpa’s Defense Sciences Office

Solving problems no one else has encountered, that’s what I like to do. Last year, I was in the beginning stages of developing a new non-existent case study venture with a friend. At one point during the project, though the expectations were set from the beginning, it became obvious to my friend that we were entering uncharted territory. He jumped ship, and I wasn’t surprised.

Some people just don’t have it in them. Our project could be modified to look “more of a sure thing” but I didn’t want  no part in it. The lure of a sure thing has a hard pull on most humans, especially when it’s staring them in the face. But the sure thing doesn’t yield original work; if that is what you are looking to do.

The special situation all innovators want to be in is where we can start with a blank slate. Not just simply modify and tweak a sure thing. If that’s what you are looking for, read on…

The dangers of comparison thinking

Derivative work, where you can clearly see a mashup of previous ideas; that’s what most work looks like. In my line of work we talk a lot about Disney as having a monopoly on the most impactful type of innovation of all: customer experience.

There isn’t a meeting that doesn’t go by where Disney isn’t mentioned. Same goes for when discussing UI’s and UX’s, there is always a comparison towards Apple. Or when discussing films, someone always mentions some great movie and how we can replicate some scene from it; or even the story.

But, Disney and Apple aren’t everything. Existing companies started from a set of assumptions that drove them for a while, and still do, and those same assumptions should not be taken as a given.

The mind has a very hard pull on us to take the easy way out and just replicate from existing solutions. This usually leads to iteration and increments. Again, the problem with iterative work is that you start with existing assumptions, rather than questioning them.

For increments, comparison is a great tactic to use. For breakthroughs, we have to start at the fundamentals…

Start with First Principles

We normally think by analogy — by comparing experiences and ideas to what we already know— but Elon Musk, the founder and CEO of Tesla and SpaceX, says there’s a better way to innovate: start with a blank slate and use first principles.

In the video above, Elon Musk talks about starting from “First Principles”:

“I think it’s important to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. The normal way we conduct our lives is we reason by analogy. [With analogy] we are doing this because it’s like something else that was done, or it is like what other people are doing. [With first principles] you boil things down to the most fundamental truths…and then reason up from there.”

I agree with his point of view, it takes a lot more mental energy to start from scratch. I also think it’s one of the reasons so few people can start with a blank page and not overcome our mind’s tendency to immediately make comparisons.

The benefit of “first principles” thinking?

It allows you to innovate in clear leaps, rather than building small improvements onto something that already exists. Musk gives an example of the first automobile. While everyone else was trying to improve horse-drawn carriages, someone looked at the fundamentals of transportation and the combustion engine in order to create a car.

Typically, inside corporations inductive thinking (based on directly observable facts) and deductive thinking (logic and analysis, typically based on past evidence) are prized. Whereas design focused organizations emphasize abductive thinking  (imagining what could be possible). Thinking in terms of First Principles puts us in abductive thinking mode because we have to discover new patterns and build from there.

To get your mind focused on the fundamentals, ask yourself the following questions before starting any project:

  • What are we really trying to accomplish?
  • What is the real problem?
  • What really matters to the customer/user?

Rarely do people ask themselves questions likes these when starting a project. There is a bias to jump straight in like a chicken without it’s head, next thing you see is people just spinning their wheels.

Bottom line: As I’ve said previously, innovation is more about perspective and attitude than it is about process. The insight for innovation happens when looking at a problem from a completely new angle. Breaking a problem down to its core components and then building back up from there with a fresh perspective often helps us arrive at very different conclusions than established approaches.

Next Article

The 7 essential innovation questions