Elon Musk’s fledgling SpaceX finally got its big break in the form of a contract to launch a client’s satellite with one of his rockets. Unfortunately, he discovered that the cooling unit in the rocket’s nose cone designed to safeguard its satellite payload wasn’t working, and it was going to cost millions to replace.
That’s millions more than his company could afford. “For many years, we were week to week on cash flow, within weeks of running out of money,” Musk says.
Cash flow be damned, the nose cone needed to be kept cool to prevent the satellite from burning up during delivery. It seemed replacing the multimillion dollar cooling unit was not optional.
What to do?
When Your Business is on the Hot Seat
Your business may not be in danger of being lost in space or facing the existential loss of millions, but it can still be stressful and paralyzing when things go wrong. What do you do when you can’t accommodate the traditional, conventional solution to your problem?
Well, if you’re Elon Musk, you go back to basics. “We had to be super scrappy,” Musk said. “If we did it the standard way, we would have run out of money.”
Musk and his engineers noticed that the nose cone’s volume was about that of a house, so you know what they did?
They bought a $6,000 commercial a/c unit, flew into space, and delivered a satellite!
How in the world did Elon have the audacity to come up with such an unconventional solution? How was he able to succeed overcoming this seemingly insurmountable obstacle where most would have failed?
He used thinking to reframe the problem.
Most people facing this situation would ask, “How do we install a new multimillion dollar coolant system we can’t afford?” But Musk applied First Principles Thinking, and asked “What is needed to cool a rocket ship’s nose cone?”
These are two completely different approaches to problem solving. The conventional problem-solving method assumes a basic premise (ex: everyone uses a specialized spacecraft coolant system, so we need to as well), but Elon’s approach is radically different.
Elon’s method assumes nothing.
Instead, it breaks the problem down to it foundation – “We need to cool the rocket’s nose cone…” – then proceeds from there – “Do we really need this multimillion dollar coolant system – what are the fundamental requirements to effectively cool a nose cone?”
In an , Musk explains “First Principles is kind of a physics way of looking at the world. You boil things down to the most fundamental truths and say, ‘What are we sure is true?’ … and then reason up from there.”
When you utilize the First Principles Method of problem-solving, you ignore so-called best practices; you question conventional beliefs; and working backwards from your desired outcome, seek simpler, more efficient solutions.
“Think outside the box, collapse the box, and take a fucking sharp knife to it.”
With their rocket grounded, and their company’s economic viability on the line, most decision makers would have unhesitatingly put an engineer to work designing a new system or looked for a new system supplier that could offer a price advantage. Maybe they would have looked to try and find cost-saving measures elsewhere in the company to free up money to pay for a new nose cone coolant system.
But that’s exactly the point – most would have unquestioningly presumed the need to replace the old multimillion dollar unit with a new multimillion dollar unit.
Instead, Musk challenged the conventional basic assumptions, and looked for the solution that would enable him to successfully move forward now.
Ask yourself, “how often am I missing opportunities in my business by blindly accepting conventional basic assumptions?”
More often think you’d like to admit I bet.
[It’s counterintuitive and flies in the face of ‘best practices.’ It also runs counter to our desire to emulate the leaders in our fields.]
3 Steps to First Principle Thinking
Let’s take a digital marketing consultant as an example.
1. Define your problem
For instance, let’s say by using content marketing, you’re trying to stand out and build influence in your field, but you can’t compete with the leaders when it comes to the subject scope and the sheer volume of content they can deliver.
2. Define your challenge
Here you want to question the validity of any underlying conventional assumptions related to your problem.
If my goal is to be noticed and build influence, is it mandatory that I cover as broad a range of subjects and match the volume of content the leaders publish? What is mandatory for me to do to be noticed and influential, and what is commonly accepted but ultimately non-essential that I can ignore for now?
3. Analyze Your Challenge
Q: Is it mandatory that I cover a wide range of topics within my discipline to get noticed and become influential?
A: No. Instead of writing blog posts about a wide range of topics (say, email sales funnels, keyword research, analytics, buyer personas, techniques for developing blog graphics, and methods for simplifying content complexity) I specialize, and could focus my writing around the topic of simplifying content marketing complexity.
This emphasis on a specialized subject will improve my ability to get noticed more easily by a targeted audience for whom this is of interest. The depth of coverage on this narrowly-focused topic will provide deeper, more valuable benefits to my audience. While my competitors are going a mile wide and an inch deep, I’ll be able to stay focused, and provide more credible, influential content on the subject.
Q: Is it mandatory that I develop and deliver a similarly large volume of content as the leaders to get noticed and become influential?
A: No. Instead of writing 100 blog posts about a wide range of topics (like my competitors are doing), I could write just 30 blog posts focused on simplifying content marketing complexity.
Although the quantity of content I develop overall is less than my competitors, the content will represent a larger quantity of content covering my chosen subject than even the market leaders can offer. This concentration on and depth of coverage will afford me greater visibility and the opportunity to be recognized as a thought leader in my space
This maximizes your opportunities based on your available resources of time, money, and knowledge. You can always pivot or expand your efforts later. The important thing to understand is – this is the best way to become effective and competitive now.
[DOWNLOAD YOUR FIRST PRINCIPLES WORKSHEET HERE]