Milan van den Bovenkamp

Publish Date

10th of July 2017

How to develop new features from first principles (like Elon Musk)

think elon musk, think brigher, first principles 2

It’s easy to compare yourself to others, to set your product or business aside similar ideas. But comparison kills joy, says researcher and writer Brené Brown. I even believe it kills creativity and innovation. Using analogy does not help while creating products or developing features. It’s harder—but way more effective to reason by first principles.

The way to reason and thinking in the system level, in the core of the matter, from first principles is the way Elon Musk built all of his companies, from PayPal to SpaceX. Because making risks is only smart when you control the complete narrative and reasoning.

Not just a hardware mindset

If you think Musk is purely a hardware guy, remember that all the hardware that gets satellites in the Lower Earth Orbit, Tesla’s driving autopilot; is run by software. I want to share a few examples where his mindset can be applied to building your software (team).

Elon Musk self explained it like he’s boiling it down to first principles, where the basis is of his argument is:

“I think generally people’s thinking process is too bound by convention or analogy to prior experiences. It’s rare that people try to think of something on a first principles basis. They’ll say, “We’ll do that because it’s always been done that way.” Or they’ll not do it because “Well, nobody’s ever done that, so it must not be good.”

This is the most ludicrous way to think, since you compare it to history or to scaffoldings that are set up by other people. If you’re running an experiment, want a quick prototype, or want to collect some data around an assumption you’re making; you can use existing tools and models. Only if you’re going all in and want to make a sustainable impact, with whatever you do, reason from first principles.

Elon Musk goes on to explain:

“You have to build up the reasoning from the ground up—“from the first principles” is the phrase that’s used in physics. You look at the fundamentals and construct your reasoning from that, and then you see if you have a conclusion that works or doesn’t work, and it may or may not be different from what people have done in the past.”

It’s a powerful way of thinking, don’t you dare become evil like Dr Evil mister Musk! 😉

Start by asking yourself and your team why

For the last years we all in our tech-startup-bubble have become used to asking why, all the time. Because of several TED like videos, management books and potential workshops you most probably did (hinting at Simon Sinek and every spin off of him). It’s hard to forget because it just works. For example, when people explain and boil down concepts, they learn; when you explain ideas to others it’s a very powerful way of collaboration. All this comes from the question why things work the way they work, to reason from basic ideas and simple language.

If you discovered what the core foundation is of your product or vision, you can start making new ideas on top of that. When you create an application, the word already explains it, it’s a singular application (app) to achieve something. That means if you reason back to that single purpose, you can reason up from there. Because who needs a swiss army knife kind of app bloated with features?

Even when picking a programming language, it’s smart to ‘go native’ and go build an application from the ground up, for basic languages and closest to the source of the operating system. When you want to make your software for scale, make it for the future, and try to challenge yourself to simplicity.

Applying first principles to your organisation

First principles also work in the organisation of your organisation. For starters who is needed and who is not? If you keep tasks and responsibilities simple and basic you can discover how many people are actually needed.

You could even do shorter projects, cut the complexity, and have smaller deliverables. You can even do that by hiring outside people that are involved in your idea and concept for a shorter while. By extending your product team (full disclosure, we do that at Brighter), the outside people challenge your current people and the new people look at your business with new eyes.

Boiling down means don’t look for ‘nice feedback’

The easiest way of applying constructive criticism is to have more effective conversations with the people around you. When talking to colleagues, users or customers it’s important to keep asking why for the sake of finding that exactly what truly is that painful emotion. Have these hard conversations and find that revelation that can potentially transform your business or product.

The weirdest questions, the harshest feedback are the best gifts you can get and they come from other departments and external forces.

When you pay attention to negative feedback, when you try to understand and not respond—you get great insight. When you receive feedback the de facto defence mechanism is to respond with answers why you chose this or that. Remember why you are asking for feedback, the objective is to understand, not to react.

When sharing feedback, you should first give praise or tips, and then be honest. If you feel your feedback is not heard, be a little bit more honest. Sometimes when you give feedback you need to be a little bit more painful to get through to the foundation of people, to bruise their ego a bit so you’ll make them understand and not react.
Even more applications

Thinking like this is powerful in life as well.

Boil down your necessities when you start a business, because you need to be agile and you can use all the runway. Creating something new takes time and all the money, and saying no to things you don’t need is just part of the deal.

For example, be aware of why you like to hang out with some friends, why do you join these meetups and why do you need to read/listen this book. It’s a powerful mindset to say no, to filter through the clutter and to reason from first principles, anywhere.

From first hand it can seem you can become a bit of a nasty person to be around—but I find that saying no, being really clear about something and doing things effectively does not make you a unpleasant person to be around. On the contrary, it makes it truly attractive to be around, because people know and what to expect.

You will most probably not become the next Elon Musk

I’m not sure how he does it, and if you even want that—but you will be your an improved human being in your world. You can be leader in your field. Start today, reason from basics, ask clever questions and listen carefully to understand.

If you think a set of new eyes can do you business, product or mindset good. Give us a call, we’re based in The Netherlands and Ukraine, and often visit the states.  

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