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.

It’s Always Day 1 at Amazon

It’s Aways Day 1 at Amazon

Another fabric of Amazon’s DNA, injected all the way from Jeff B, is the mantra of Day I. It’s a simple yet profound war-cry, no matter whether Amazon is 25 years or 5 years, whether your organization within Amazon is 2 years or 12 years, everyone acts as if we are in the first day of a brand new startup. You know that feeling you get, that excitement, motivation, and drive to go from zero to 100 in 7 seconds, that is the mentality and culture that is demanded of you.

Why is it important to always be at day-one mentality? It instills a sense of passion combined with energy, with a bearing on customer needs, not stuck in processes and other bureaucracies befitting mature organizations, often referred to as organizations in Day 2.

The outside world can push you into Day 2 if you won’t or can’t embrace powerful trends quickly. If you fight them, you’re probably fighting the future. Embrace them and you have a tailwind.

Jeff Bezos

Reading between the lines, new startups with fresh mentalities are nimble enough to sense new trends and pivot as needed, and not be stuck in the past. Ensure we don’t stay stuck in the past, and putting customers first.

Learning about Amazon’s newest two Leadership Principles

It doesn’t happen often, but this week marks the acceptance of two new leadership principles into Amazon’s cultural tenets, Strive to be the Earth’s Best Employer and Success and Scale Bring Broad Responsibility.

Amazon’s Leadership Principles, or LPs help its employees hold themselves and each other accountable, through tangible and measurable qualities that guide and lead decision-making, with customers at the forefront.

Let’s dive deeper into the two new principles.

Strive to be Earth’s Best Employer

Leaders work every day to create a safer, more productive, higher performing, more diverse, and more just work environment. They lead with empathy, have fun at work, and make it easy for others to have fun. Leaders ask themselves: Are my fellow employees growing? Are they empowered? Are they ready for what’s next? Leaders have a vision for and commitment to their employees’ personal success, whether that be at Amazon or elsewhere.

Amazon

This is quite a unique LP, unlike others which are more operational-driven, to achieve business results, this LP is about fostering and contributing to a better place to work at. This is often forgotten in environments where metrics and business success take precedence over mental and emotional wellbeing.

This principal ensures you build on your emotional intelligence, becoming an empathy-driven leader where being successful means others around you are also successful.

Success and Scale Bring Broad Responsibility

We started in a garage, but we’re not there anymore. We are big, we impact the world, and we are far from perfect. We must be humble and thoughtful about even the secondary effects of our actions. Our local communities, planet, and future generations need us to be better every day. We must begin each day with a determination to make better, do better, and be better for our customers, our employees, our partners, and the world at large. And we must end every day knowing we can do even more tomorrow. Leaders create more than they consume and always leave things better than how they found them.

Amazon

Beyond our current and immediate environment, the 16th LP advocates for us do be empathetic beyond our immediate team and colleagues, but with our customers, and wider community and planet. This is an altruistic LP to be a good citizen and do good for the world at large, leaving a legacy and footprint.

These two LPs are a great additional beacons to making yourself a better person for others, within your immediate radius and globally.

Working Backwards at Amazon

Amazon’s catalyst for innovation lies in its perspective to always think from the customer backwards. That’s how most successful projects get done, and it all starts with the commonly used Amazonian phrase, working backwards.

Before building a charter, a project plan and setting out timelines, the first artifact that a customer-centric project entails is the publication of a Press Release and FAQ, or PRFAQ for short. This mechanism allows key decision makers to start with what the customer experience articulated through the press would sound like, using the journalism practice of being concise, with the most important paragraphs outlining the entire program, and why customers would get excited about it. This is part of one of Amazon’s most important leadership principles, customer obsession.

Defining the customer experience through the PR, which is no more than six pages, you work backwards and build out the associated FAQ, where you dive deeper into common questions and answers. The FAQ section is where you would outline and iterate on the tough questions that you would anticipate people would ask, by preemptively answering them.

One notable omission in Amazon’s tooling for being customer obsessed, is the lack of PowerPoint presentations, as Colin Bryar and Bill Carr explain, in their book Working Backwards : Insights, Stories, and Secrets from Inside Amazon:

What if we thought of the product concept narrative as a press release? Usually, in a conventional organization, a press release is written at the end of the product development process. The engineers and product managers finish their work, then “throw it over the wall” to the marketing and sales people, who look at the product from the customer point of view, often for the first time. They’re the ones who write the press release, which describes the killer features and fantastic benefits and is designed to create buzz, capture attention, and, above all, get customers to leap out of their chairs to buy.

The authors explain that as most companies take the approach of coming up with a product or business idea that is great for their organizations, they then try to spin a positive light as to why there are unmet customer needs, rather than the other way around. “If the two organizations had started the process by writing a press release, they would have had to agree on the features, cost, customer experience, and price. Then they could have worked backwards to figure out what to build, thereby surfacing the challenges they would face in product development and manufacturing.”