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Not being trained as a physicist, the term ‘first principles thinking’ is not a term with which I was familiar until I started listening to and reading about Elon Musk.

According to Drake Baer, a journalist for Business Insider“Aristotle said that a first principle is the ‘first basis from which a thing is known’ and that pursuing first principles is the key to doing any sort of systemic inquiry — whether in philosophy, as he did, or in business, as Musk does.”

According to Musk, ‘first principles thinking’ involves taking your thought process back to the most basic truths and reasoning from there. He says we typically reason by analogy, which means we do something because that’s the way it’s always been done.

As I listened to Elon Musk talk about how he approaches the problems of the world using ‘first principles thinking’ I was struck that perhaps I was intuitively using ‘first principles thinking’ when I approached the question of how to build Smart Projex.

I would argue that ‘first principles thinking’ is badly needed when we are trying to solve complex problems, making it an ideal approach to project management. Here are five ways ‘first principles thinking’ could significantly contribute to the world of project management.

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‘First principles thinking’ requires us to test our assumptions.

So often in project work, I see teams fail to even identify assumptions. To be successful as a project team, we need to question everything. We need to know ‘why?’ we are doing the project, what constitutes success and failure, what our assumptions and constraints are, and how we plan to tackle the project. That means that we don’t start project planning by entering the gazillions of needed activities into a Gantt chart tool, we instead start by exploring the why.

‘First principles thinking’ can re-shape our understanding of what a project is.

The Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK) defines a project as “a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service, or result. The temporary nature of projects indicates that a project has a definite beginning and end.” (PMBOK Guide 5th edition)

Far be it from me to argue with PMI’s definition, but it doesn’t help me much. Let’s take some examples:

  • Putting together Thanksgiving dinner for 25 friends and family – yes, it’s temporary. Yes, every Thanksgiving dinner is a unique result. But it simply doesn’t compare to a strategic planning project at GE.
  • Design and execute a bug fix for a software solution – again, it’s temporary and will create a unique result. It may or may not require a team approach, and it certainly doesn’t need a Gantt chart schedule. And, for a software design company, it may just be a part of operations.
  • Review and revise the medical benefits policy and packages for IBM Corporation, following legislative changes to health care laws – let’s hope it’s temporary and creates a new and improved solution. This will definitely take a team. Good luck creating a Gantt chart schedule.
  • Design and build a rocket that can go to Mars and back – yes, it’s a temporary endeavor to create a unique solution. But it’s such a long-term vision that it really can’t be managed as a project, but rather a series of interconnected projects, within a portfolio.

While ‘first principles thinking’ may not change the definition of a project, it offers insights intohow we talk about project management and what is important. Read on.

‘First principles thinking’ can help us reexamine executive dashboard metrics.

Construction projects, technology projects, and change projects have some common components. However, using Scrum to manage technology projects, Primavera to manage construction projects, and Excel to manage change projects, results in little common language from which anyone can create executive metrics.

As I have written about before, when activity durations cannot be reliably estimated and progress cannot be easily measured, using ‘earned value management’ as a dashboard metric makes no sense.

The Project Management Institute teaches young project managers that project ‘work’ should not begin until you have an approved charter. For companies with paying clients, it’s important to be careful about putting too much time on the books until the engagement has been approved.

And yet, innovative companies are constantly, as part of their operational processes, exploring new ideas and approaches. In a Scrum world, this is evidenced by the backlogs in the many projects that are on the board. At companies like Google, employees are urged to spend time every month working on new innovative ideas. When do these innovative explorations become a new project?

Do we need a category for exploration projects, where the end is not well understood, where no charter exists because there is no clear understanding of the desired outcome, where there is no approved scope, and where the daily work may involve sophisticated testing and experimenting?

Going back to the first principles, is it important for executives to understand where their projects are going, what they are costing, and when they will be finished? Does that include these exploratory projects?

One of the basic premises behind Smart Projex is the need for reliable data analytics and the concern that there are few (if any) tools today that really provide good executive decision-making metrics.

‘First principles thinking’ should challenge us to rethink project schedules.

This internal conversation might sound familiar:

We need a Gantt Chart schedule.

Do we really need one?

Why do we need a schedule?

Why can’t we let the schedule evolve?

Gantt Chart schedules are not always necessary. For some projects, just setting a few firm dates is all that’s needed. For example, deadlines for when you need certain materials or persons on site. Elon Musk is famous for announcing that he will achieve something by a certain date, and then, failing to deliver. To some extent, it has harmed his credibility, particularly in earlier years when he was fighting to save his companies.

I think big goals are great, provided they are good goals. And committing to goals that involve others typically improves success. But, when a detailed schedule is created with activities that have never been done before and where there is insufficient data with which to reliably estimate the duration, the schedule will not be very valuable. You run the risk of spending too much time and effort on managing an unreliable schedule, rather than working on tasks which will actually move the project forward.

We should consider ‘first principles thinking’ when we plan our project strategy.

So often, I see people solving their project challenges without digging deep or really probing the various options. This is particularly true in non-profit fundraisers when the non-profit just follows the plan from last year. Digging deep will allow the team to re-energize the event with some new and different ideas.

I also see this superficial approach happen quite frequently when teams are working on projects for known clients. There can be the assumption that the client doesn’t want to pay for innovative thinking. As Musk said in this TED interview by Chris Anderson, ‘first principles thinking’ requires significantly more effort. (See 19:30 in the video.) Many people are inclined to take the easy path. But there are times when spending time to think deeply about a problem will provide a much better solution.

This idea of First Principles Thinking really struck me because it questions the status quo and forces you to rethink why and even what you’re doing. Just because you were taught to approach a project in a certain way does not mean it’s the best way. I’ve found this to be true of so many things in the world of project management – like using a Gantt Chart.

First Principles Thinking, when applied to project management can have huge impacts on your organization and its projects. Need help learning how to do this? Sign up for our weekly newsletter for some tips.