In a team meeting yesterday we got onto the topic of decision making. And in particular making decisions when in a novel situation. The thing that is obvious is that as decision makers, humans look for previous examples to go from to guide us. It seems like it would be the right thing to do. And on the surface it would appear to make sense, it worked last time, lets apply the same strategy, intervention, decision again to a similar situation. And this appears to be the right approach. Until it is not. 

In this series of blogs we will present a key principle to help you to get back to using first principles thinking.

Now we have spoken about complex systems briefly in previous blogs. But to get people up to speed, complex adaptive systems are any system (natural or artificial) that have the capability to sense, adapt and respond to the environment and the stressors of their environment. The responses that they have are considered non-linear in nature, meaning that the sum may be more or less than its parts. And they vitally have the ability to respond to stressors in three ways. They can be harmed from the stressor (negative response), they can be robust or resilient to a stressor (neutral response) and they can improve from the stressor (positive response). This third response (positive response from stress/intervention application) is the key difference between ordered and unordered systems. Ordered systems are typically artificial systems that do not have the capability of positive adaptation (machines or manufactured goods for instance). 

Why is any of this important in first principles thinking?

Understanding this difference in ordered vs unordered systems is important because it allows us to understand the type of intervention that we can put into place when dealing with an injury, a social decision or a training plan. If we are dealing with a human, they have the capability to adapt and improve from the application of stressors. This is why exercise improves health, it stresses the body and the response is that it improves its future capability to that stress. Contrast this with a car. A car has never increased its top speed by regularly being driven at high speeds, in fact its likely to break down very quickly. Humans on the other hand will expand their capabilities if they are regularly pushed (to a reasonable extent) to perform tasks at their limit of their current capability. 

The other reason this important is that complex systems are never in the same state as they were previously. Even if the situation you are facing is similar the system may be older, and be more or less capable of tolerating stressors. For all those facing the prospect of becoming a runner again in lockdown for the first time in years, this is why you cannot go straight back to the training plan you did 10 years ago when you ran a marathon. You are likely to start at a different volume and intensity, because your current tolerance to such training is likely to be diminished.

So when we got onto the topic of first principles thinking we started to discuss the idea that any situation that requires decision making can be viewed in a first principles light. Especially if it is a novel situation and we do not have a previous set of information on which to go by. I am sure this is making sense as we work through it, however the temptation to use our previous experience is so warm and fuzzy. The reason is that it is familiar, comfortable and presents us with the potential for some level of certainty in the result. And herein lies the danger. When we arrive at a situation we want to apply something that we have a level of confidence about, however in novel situations (and in complex systems, most situations are novel due to the system constantly adapting and changing) this is a fools errand. We are much better to apply principles than to repeat the same intervention or behaviour. 

Now this may seem difficult to do, but identifying first principles are easier than you may realise. It entails exploring but a few features of the problem and the systems involved, and then working towards applying or removing the intervention that will lead to the response that you would like to move towards. 

Principle 1 – Have a process of assessment to determine what type of system you are working with.

In part two we will dive into the assessment of problems and systems and how this creates the foundation of first principles thinking.