Skip to content

How To Use First Principles Thinking To Innovate

Thinking is one of the essential skills a person must learn. It allows us to decide, solve problems, and come up with new ideas. And yet, many people never learn how to do it properly. The history of thinking goes back centuries. The ancient Greeks were some of the first people to think about thinki

Phil McKinney
Phil McKinney
6 min read
team collaboration using first principle thinking
team collaboration around the table using first principle thinking

Thinking is one of the essential skills a person must learn. It allows us to decide, solve problems, and come up with new ideas. And yet, many people never learn how to do it properly.

The history of thinking goes back centuries. The ancient Greeks were some of the first people to think about thinking, and they came up with several important ideas about it. One of the most important was the idea that thinking is a process that can be divided into distinct steps.

Origin of First-Principles Thinking

While learning how to think is a significant first step, some of the world's greatest thinkers took it further by developing their own thinking methods. One of the most famous and influential methods is known as “first-principles thinking.”

First-principles thinking was first popularized by the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle. He believed that the best way to understand something was to break it down and then put those parts back together to form a new understanding.

First-principles thinking was later picked up by the eminent scientist Isaac Newton. He used it to develop his famous laws of motion. First-principles thinking is also credited with helping Albert Einstein develop his theory of relativity.

Some of the most brilliant minds of recent times — Thomas Edison, Richard Feynman, Nikola Tesla, and Elon Musk — used the idea of first principles to allow them to solve some of the most intractable problems.

What Is The First-Principles Approach

In its simplest form, first principles thinking takes a problem and breaks it into its parts. Once you have identified the unique pieces of the puzzle, you can then put them back together to make sense.

We can use this approach in any situation, from business to personal relationships.

The advantages of first-principal thinking:

See the world in a new way

One of the advantages of first principles thinking is that it allows you to see the world differently. This can be helpful when you are faced with a problem that seems impossible to solve. By breaking it down into smaller pieces, you can find a solution that you would not have otherwise considered.

Helps avoid assumptions

Another advantage of this approach is that it can help you to avoid making assumptions. When you are trying to solve a problem, it is easy to make assumptions about what you think is causing the problem. However, any basic assumption may not be accurate. By looking at the problem from the first principles, you can avoid making these inaccurate assumptions.

Identify hidden problems

Reasoning from first principles can also help you identify hidden problems. When looking at a problem from a different perspective, you may see things you would not have noticed before. This can be helpful in both your personal and professional life.

Mental energy

This approach can also help you to conserve mental energy. When trying to solve a problem, it can be easy to get bogged down in the details. However, by breaking the problem down into smaller pieces, you can focus on one thing at a time and avoid getting overwhelmed.

5 Steps of First-Principle Thinking

The 5 steps I use when applying first principles to a problem are:

1 – Challenge Your Assumptions

In problem-solving, one of the biggest enemies of creativity is assumptions that some believe make up fundamental truths. We often make assumptions without even realizing it, and these assumptions can prevent us from seeing a problem in a new way. First principles thinking is a way of looking at problems that can help you avoid making these assumptions and see the world differently.

You are assuming means to take something for granted or to believe that something is true with no evidence. When we make assumptions, we stop looking for other possibilities, and we limit our ability to solve problems creatively. For example, let's say you are trying to figure out how to get from point A to point B. If you assume that the only way to get there is by car, you may not consider other options such as taking the bus or walking. However, if you challenge your assumption and consider all the possibilities, you may find a better solution.

Some questions you can ask yourself that will help you break out of your assumptions:

  • Under what beliefs (foundational truths) does my industry operate?
  • Under what are the underlying assumptions does my organization operate?
  • What if the opposite were true for each of the assumptions?
  • What would have to be true for my industry or organization to change?
  • How can I test my hypotheses?

2 – Breakdown The Problem Into Its Lowest Elements

To solve any problem, you need to understand it at its most basic fundamental building blocks. This is the philosophy of first principles thinking, which breaks down problems into their simplest elements to find a solution.

But before you can do that, you need to identify the problem correctly. Too often, people try to solve the wrong problem because they don't understand it at a deep enough level. They might see symptoms of the problem, but they don't understand the underlying cause or have true knowledge of the underlying issues.

Some questions you can ask yourself that will help you break down your problem:

  • What are the essential elements (first principles) of this problem?
  • Is there an even more basic set of first principles?
  • What are the relationships between the unique first principles?
  • What are the dependencies between the unique first principles?
  • Which element(s) is contributing to the problem to be solved?

3 – Identify The Core Problem

Even if you have correctly identified the problem, it can still be challenging to find a solution if you don't know what the core problem is. The core problem is the most important and essential part of the problem that needs to be solved. Once you identify the core problem, you can then start to look for a solution.

Some questions you can ask yourself that will help you identify the core problem:

  • What is the most critical part of this problem?
  • How can you define the essential goal that needs to be achieved?
  • What are the consequences of not solving this problem?
  • How many ways can this problem be solved?

4 – Generate Workable Solutions

The next step is to generate workable solutions. This is where your creativity will be essential. To come up with new ideas, you need to apply box thinking and look at the problem from different perspectives. Brainstorming with a group can also be helpful, as it allows you to bounce ideas off each other.

However, coming up with actionable ideas using reasoning by first principles is only half the battle. You also need to make sure that your solutions are feasible and will solve the problem. Additionally, you need to consider any potential risks or challenges.

Some questions you can ask yourself that will help you generate workable solutions:

  • What are some different ways to solve this problem?
  • What are some box thinking solutions?
  • Which solution is the most feasible?
  • Which solution is the most effective?

5 – Implement The Solution

Once you have selected a solution, it's time to implement it. This will require careful planning and execution. You will need to consider all the different factors that could affect the success of your solution and make sure that you have considered all the potential risks.

Examples of First Principal Thinking

First principle thinking has been used throughout history to solve some of the world's most intractable problems. This philosophy can be applied in any domain, from science and mathematics to business and politics.

In physics, first principle thinking is used to develop theories and models. For example, Isaac Newton used the first principles approach to establish the laws of motion and gravity. These laws are based on fundamental principles like the conservation of energy and momentum.

Elon Musk has applied the first principles approach and a lot more mental energy to create successful companies like Tesla and SpaceX in business. He starts with the fundamental principles of a problem and then applies them to develop new solutions. For example, he began with the principle that electric cars could be more efficient than gasoline cars when making Tesla. He then applied this principle to create a new type of car that is now changing the automotive industry.

Changing The World One First Principle At A Time

First principle thinking is one of the most important tools we have for solving the really hard problems in society. It allows us to break down a problem into its fundamental elements and then find new solutions based on those principles. This approach has been used throughout history to solve some of the world's most intractable problems.

First principle thinking is also essential for career success. Many of the most successful people in the world have been acquiring knowledge of first principles and then using this approach to find new and innovative solutions to problems. If you want to succeed in your career, you need to learn how to think like a first principle thinker.

If you are looking for help in innovating especially tough problems, reach out to Techtrend or drop them an email at

Full Disclosure — Techtrend is the innovation agency I started in 1996 and am now the Chairman. They specialize in tech, consumer electronics, architecture, and digital immersive media experiences. That said, I’m not that involved in the day-to-day at Techtrend and get no compensation from the firm.

BlogHow ToKiller QuestionsQuestioncreative thinkingfirst principlefirst principle thinkingproblem solvingthinkthinking

Phil McKinney Twitter

Phil McKinney is an innovator, podcaster, author, and speaker. He is the retired CTO of HP. Phil's book, Beyond The Obvious, shares his expertise and lessons learned on innovation and creativity.


Related Posts

Members Public

Is Humanity's Dependence on Technology Good Or Bad?

Humanity has created a dependency on technology, which can significantly enhance problem-solving while eroding thinking skills. The key lies in the balanced, mindful use of technology to complement rather than supplant critical thinking and cognitive skills.

Is Humanity's Dependence on Technology Good Or Bad?
Members Public

Is Boredom the Silent Muse?

Unlock creativity through boredom? Our fast-paced lives fear silence, but stillness may be the key to focus and innovation. What should you do? Embrace boredom, reclaim your attention, and unlock your full potential.

A man walkin the woods deep in thought
Members Public

How to Manage Cognitive Load and Optimize Your Thinking

Did you know your brain can overload like a computer with too many tabs open? This phenomenon, termed 'cognitive load,' can decrease focus, retention, and overall performance.

Image of a brain that overloaded. AI Generated.