First Principles

Why I’ve been thinking a lot about the way Elon Musk approaches problems.

I recently ran across a quote from an interview Tesla and SpaceX founder Elon Musk gave in an interview with Kevin Rose. In response to Rose’s question asking for “one piece of advice that you would always recommend to an entrepreneur,” Musk replied (amongst other things):

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.

He goes on to apply the method to making battery packs cheaper. Batteries, he explains, have always been expensive and, therefore, that’s how they’ll always be. Instead, he suggests, to make a cheaper battery you should look at the component materials, understand how much they cost individually (much less than the cost of a completed battery), and then figure out how to put them together in a more cost-efficient way.

While I know it’s not a new idea (reasoning up instead of down), I particularly like that Musk has given it a name and explained it articulately. The idea of finding the atomic components of a problem and solving from there seems to be something that ties together most truly innovative ideas. At its essence it’s a method for finding step change ideas instead of iterative ones. Here’s how Google X applies a similar method of thinking to coming up with “moonshot” ideas:

DeVaul insists that it’s often just as easy, or easier, to make inroads on the biggest problems “than to try to optimize the next 5% or 2% out of some process.” Think about cars, he tells me. If you want to design a car that gets 80 mpg, it requires a lot of work, yet it really doesn’t address the fundamental problem of global fuel resources and emissions. But if you want to design a car that gets 500 mpg, which actually does attack the problem, you are by necessity freed from convention, since you can’t possibly improve an existing automotive design by such a degree. Instead you start over, reexamining what a car really is. You think of different kinds of motors and fuels, or of space-age materials of such gossamer weight and iron durability that they alter the physics of transportation. Or you dump the idea of cars altogether in favor of a ­substitute. And then maybe, just maybe, you come up with something worthy of X.

What’s interesting, though, is I think you can apply it beyond just big problems to almost any challenge a company or product faces. I gave a talk at our recent DesignTalk event about how to work best with designers. 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. Encourage them to throw away existing solutions and instead solve the problem in a way that best suits the unique issues faced in this case. While the end solution might resemble something else that exists, by not applying analogical thinking you at least know that you’ve arrived at it because it is the best, not because it already exists.

This, of course, isn’t easy as most people aren’t really comfortable working or thinking this way. For one, we’re encouraged from an early age to follow the rules, which first principles thinking seems fundamentally opposed to (what do you mean the existing solution might not be the best one?). Second, as Laszlo Bock, Google’s head of talent, pointed out recently, many people don’t have strength on both the creative and logical fronts:

Bock: “Humans are by nature creative beings, but not by nature logical, structured-thinking beings. Those are skills you have to learn. One of the things that makes people more effective is if you can do both. … If you’re great on both attributes, you’ll have a lot more options. If you have just one, that’s fine, too.” But a lot fewer people have this kind of structured thought process and creativity.

Designers, I’d argue, excel at exactly this (as do engineers). The challenge, then, is not in the people, it’s in the structure, the briefing, and the encouragement to explore things in fundamentally new ways (when you’re constantly trying to upend existing solutions you’re bound to have quite a bit of both disagreement amongst the creators and failure as you try out new ideas).

The question, then, is how do you create an organization that keeps first principles thinking as its fundamental approach. Lots of companies have started with this and eventually fallen off the wagon as the other realities of the business set in (Ed Catmull, co-founder of Pixar, calls this “the beast” in his book Creativity, Inc.). How do you distribute this throughout the organization so that it’s not purely reserved for the R&D department? (Or should you?) I’m not sure what all the answers are, but these are fun questions to ask as we’re trying to build a company that approaches problem solving this way.

If you want to come work at Percolate and try out some first principles thinking for yourself, we’re hiring.