Break Down Complex Problems with First Principle Thinking

An instrument for decomposing complex problems into simplified solutions, is the strategy of first principles thinking, often otherwise known as reasoning from first principles, and is often leveraged by self-made geniuses such as Elon Musk. In other words, a form of mental reverse engineering.

Techtello best puts it as realigning your mindset to demarcate from conventional wisdom, questioning and validating one’s beliefs. Humans are inherently governed by values and perceptions, belief systems that we learn to reasons with, influencing our minds to apply shortcuts in the form of conclusions learned previously.

Something a product manager should have ingrained in her or his mind, this hypothesis-driven thought process advocates breaking down a complex problem into its fundamental building blocks, down to its pure essence, diving down to the basic truths, and separating facts from assumptions. You then reconstruct your view from the ground up with those validated truths.

It requires understanding that our experience may be different from reality and true knowledge can be attained by learning to integrate different ideas together. It fills the gap between the incremental mindset to opening ourselves to the beautiful world of possibilities.

Techtello

In Amazon, we employ as part of Correction of Error (COE) investigations, a mechanism employed to discover the root cause, the five why’s, a tool that helps us discover the essence of a problem, or in this case, the fundamental pillars of a component.

Children inherently think in first principle because they inquisitively question everything, from why do you go to work, why do you need to eat, why do you need to sleep. A fundamental leadership principle of Amazon, the learn and be curious principle, encourages questioning perception and opening yourself to an alternative reality. Breaking the autopilot trap your mind inclines to follow.

In his quest to getting a rocket to Mars, Elon Musk concluded upon first investigation that the cost of buying a rocket is extremely cost prohibitive, over $65m. With that fundamental problem as a barrier of entrant into the space race, Elon embraced physics to employ first principles reasoning:

Physics teaches you to reason from first principles rather than by analogy. So I said, okay, let’s look at the first principles. What is a rocket made of? Aerospace-grade aluminum alloys, plus some titanium, copper, and carbon fiber. Then I asked, what is the value of those materials on the commodity market? It turned out that the materials cost of a rocket was around two percent of the typical price.

Elon Musk, 2022 interview.

Breaking down his problem into the fundamental components a rocket, instead of buying a finished rocket, he created his own rocket from raw materials, and that is what resulted in the founding of SpaceX. The company successfully cut the price of launching a rocket by 10x, decomposing a problem into fundamental components, and rebuilding.

Author: Doron Katz

Hi, I’m Doron, a data-driven technical program manager, published author, proud father and husband, based in Seattle.

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