First Principles for Problem Solving

by Jamie Flinchbaugh on 04-04-24

When I wrote my first draft of People Solve Problems, I was very clear that the tools were not where the magic was but I still referred to my favorite tools and methods a bit too often. After a structural edit and some great feedback, I committed further to write a truly method-agnostic book about problem solving, with the aim to get to the most essential matters for success.

I wish I had run across this quote before I had written the book. I think there is a good chance it would have made the introduction of the book. It is from Harrington Emerson, who wrote it well over 100 years ago…

“As to methods, there may be a million and then some, but principles are few. The man who grasps principles can successfully select his own methods. The man who tries methods, ignoring principles, is sure to have trouble.”

Please, read that twice. I did.

My first reaction is that this is how I’ve tried to live my entire life. It was inefficient, to be fair. There are a lot of places where I didn’t need to understand the underlying principles, but just learn and apply the methods. Curiosity, as they say, killed the cat. However, that also allowed me to not just accept the methods as taught but to dig further, seeking foundational understanding.

My second reaction is that this was the goal of writing People Solve Problems. I’m not going to suggest that I was successful at defining the true first principles of problem solving, but that was certainly the goal and I hope I have advanced our understanding, and the discussion, around problem solving. That’s why I continued to have discussions on the podcast. Of course, you’ll be the judge of that.

Here’s how you can utilize the concept behind this quote. Decide what domains you need to understand the first principles, and when you can be fine with just tools and methods. Everyone needs a domain, or two, or ten, where you understand the true first principles. I’m not here to judge what those domains are – it could be fantasy football or home brewing for all I know – but we all have the opportunity and, I believe, the responsibility, to pursue this opportunity to advance our collective knowledge.