Applying "first principles" thinking to Product Management

For a few years, I have been a PM in a mid sized company. I just failed an interview because, in their opinion, I did not approach my case study solution with first principles.

Could someone please provide me with a step-by-step explanation on how to use first-principles thinking to solve problems in product management? A relative example would be of great help.


Simply put, first principles thinking is the process of dissecting an issue by examining its underlying assumptions and challenging our understanding of why we believe each premise to be true.

For instance, the original Ford automobile was created with the idea that transportation was popular and helpful. Based on the supposition that everyone currently uses horses for transportation, you might begin to consider how I would set up a horse to be better to travel on as opposed to breaking down the issue of fast travel into its primary problems to be resolved, such as the need for something that is quick, comfortable to sit on, capable of covering great distances, accessible to the general public, etc.


The name “first principles” drives me nuts.

I may be misinterpreting what the others are trying to say, but I believe that “first principles” simply refers to the proper problem framing, which involves outlining the who, why, when, what, and how questions and testing your fundamental presumptions to ensure that they are true.

We can proceed to solutions only after this stage.

Instead of comprehending the problem and its underlying assumptions, I have a suspicion that you may have jumped to solutions too quickly.


The Valley’s obsession with Elon Musk has made first principles somewhat of a craze. To choose the best course of action, you essentially act as though you know nothing about the product or the market. This does not take into consideration how expensive it will be to carry out the new vision. By focusing on first principles, decision-makers aim to strip away any preconceived notions and biases, allowing for fresh and innovative ideas to emerge. However, it is crucial to balance this approach with a realistic assessment of the resources required to execute these new visions effectively. Ignoring the cost implications may lead to impractical or unfeasible strategies that could hinder long-term success.


Right now, the environment is chaotic. I would hope they mean the fundamentals, such as the rules of physics, gravity, etc., which for me, as another person noted in the comments, is the problem we are trying to address. Which forces and major points of friction are present, etc. When I advocate using first-principles thinking, I constantly get criticized. For many people who believe Elon to be a Charlatan, I believe he somewhat destroyed it. I might go on a tirade about the necessity of educating and explaining product concepts in plain language on LinkedIn. In my opinion, during the past ten years, the area has gotten swamped by BS. I might simply be a grumpy old man, though. Anyway. Don’t let it bother you. It’s a game of numbers, chemistry, and luck. Moving on to the next step is crucial.


First principles thinking refers to beginning with or arriving at objective facts, physical laws, or fundamental truths regarding individuals, societies, nature, or the universe. They are supported by evidence, and if you were alive during the Bush administration, you would have known about them as Known-Knowns.

There will always be risk or uncertainty in problem solutions, even when armed with the truth. You begin by building your problem-solving method on a foundation built on beliefs, presumptions, or unknowns when there are no objective facts or truths present.

By applying basic principles, a problem can be solved in linear algebra with one of the variables already known. Even if y and z still need to be determined, knowing what x is makes the problem a whole lot simpler to solve.


Among the other explanations on this thread, so far, this one is the best.


First-principles thinking is a powerful problem-solving approach that involves breaking down complex problems into their fundamental components and building solutions from the ground up. It encourages you to question assumptions and understand the underlying principles that govern a situation. Here’s a step-by-step explanation of how to apply first-principles thinking in product management, along with a relevant example:

Step 1: Identify the Problem
Start by clearly defining the problem you want to solve. Make sure you have a deep understanding of the problem and its nuances. In product management, this could be a challenge like declining user engagement with your mobile app.

Step 2: Break it Down
Break the problem down into its fundamental components. What are the key factors or variables that contribute to the problem? For our example, you might identify factors like app features, user experience, and marketing efforts.

Step 3: Identify Assumptions
List all the assumptions you or your team have made about the problem. Assumptions are often hidden and can limit your perspective. In our example, you might assume that users want more features or that the existing user interface is user-friendly.

Step 4: Challenge Assumptions
One by one, challenge each assumption. Ask yourself why that assumption is true and whether it can be proven or disproven. For instance, question why you assume users want more features. Is there data to support this, or could there be other reasons for declining engagement?

Step 5: Find the Fundamental Principles
Identify the fundamental principles or facts that cannot be broken down further. These are the truths that underlie the problem. For example, in product management, one fundamental principle could be that users engage more when they find value in the product.

Step 6: Generate New Solutions
With a clear understanding of the fundamental principles, start generating new solutions or ideas. These solutions should be built on these principles rather than assumptions. For instance, instead of adding more features based on the assumption that users want them, you might focus on enhancing the core value proposition of your app.

Step 7: Evaluate and Iterate
Evaluate the new solutions you’ve generated using first principles thinking. Are they aligned with the fundamental principles you identified? Test and iterate on these solutions, incorporating user feedback and data analysis.

Let’s say you work for a mid-sized e-commerce company, and the problem you’re facing is a decline in conversion rates on your website. Applying first-principles thinking:

  1. Identify the Problem: The problem is declining conversion rates on the website, resulting in reduced revenue.

  2. Break it Down: Key components include website design, product listings, checkout process, pricing, and user behavior.

  3. Identify Assumptions: Assumptions might include assuming that the website design is optimal, pricing is competitive, and users prefer a specific layout.

  4. Challenge Assumptions: Question why these assumptions are true. Is there data to support them? For example, you might discover that user testing feedback indicates issues with the website’s user interface.

  5. Find the Fundamental Principles: A fundamental principle is that users are more likely to convert when they find products easily and trust the website’s security.

  6. Generate New Solutions: Instead of assuming the current website design is perfect, you might redesign it based on user feedback and usability principles. Focus on improving trust signals like security badges.

  7. Evaluate and Iterate: Continuously monitor conversion rates and gather user feedback. Make iterative improvements based on data and user behavior, always aligning with the fundamental principles.

By using first-principles thinking, you can create innovative and effective solutions that address the core issues rather than relying on assumptions or following existing practices blindly. This approach can help you stand out as a product manager and drive meaningful improvements in your products.


Sincerely, I’ve never heard of this framework, but yes, I learned something today! Sincere to say, I believe it is something that project managers naturally do, even though the essay formalizes it and offers helpful additional frameworks for use.

This article explained it pretty well: First principles for Product Managers – HelloPM

The article’s definition is as follows: "You can incorporate first principles into your life by responding to situations in the following ways: *- disassemble systems into their component pieces. A system could be a circumstance, a difficulty, or even a device. Combine the component components of other systems to produce something wholly original and worthwhile. Inquire about the validity of comparisons and hasty inferences.

Here, the five whys approach will be effective in revealing the core ‘first principle’ of the problem. The opportunity solution tree should also work well in this situation.


@BinaCampos, I completely agree that experienced PMs would carry out this task naturally. As their seasoned PM brain should be able to accelerate through some of these frameworks, I wouldn’t feel as pressured to follow a strict framework and execute it verbatim at the senior level. They are more effective at the fundamentals of opportunity definition and discovery work at the level they are at. However, at a junior level, I do want to see the project through to completion.

What matters is trust. In an interview, trust isn’t really formed yet, so it makes sense to return to “showing your work” by using first-principles reasoning. I can’t argue that it should be used as a criterion for hiring or firing someone.


As you said, it’s a pretty natural way of thinking, but some people really love to gatekeep the expression as if they are in some exclusive club, but most of the time don’t know how to apply it themselves. Take the mvp example, for instance. A scooter is not a car’s MVP!


@KaranTrivedi, This way of thinking is wrong. Since transportation is the fundamental problem, not “I need a car,” a scooter is the MVP.


Nope @FlaviaBergstein. First principles don’t necessarily entail concentrating on the first principle. anything means to reduce anything to a set of fundamental ideas. Transportation is, therefore, not the only first principle, but it is one. You’re going to struggle if it is the sole basis of your thinking. I shouldn’t have to explain why a scooter is not the most valuable part of a car either.


The concept of using Startship as a point-to-point transport vehicle on Earth serves as a better illustration of first principles in the field of transportation (ironically, because… Elon).

If you were to approach Starship from a traditional product viewpoint, you might ask, “What are the issues with rockets that we can improve upon?”

Thinking from first principles takes a different stance. A logical conclusion to the problem of “transportation” would be, “Well, Starship can move from one side of the planet to the other really fast. Starship can also transport people, so it makes sense to use Starship as a point-to-point transportation system on earth.”


So, let’s say that a 2.0 version of a key app release is scheduled for delivery in 6 to 9 months.

The pleasant road won’t be covered in the interview. You’ll be asked questions on how, when, and why you created a fishbone. You’ll be asked questions on how, when, and why you said “no” to a stakeholder.

There is clearly more to it than that, but how adept you are at “drilling down” to the root causes of problems like customer churn, production line slowdowns, and API errors that occur in production but not in test, as well as how you take responsibility for and take the initiative to lead the solutions and outcomes

In my situation, I have serious issues with franchises and zip code regions in the API, as well as how it affects brand search in the app because some brands can operate in the same zip. And my proposed solution as a senior TPM is to implement a more robust and dynamic mapping system that accurately assigns franchises to their respective zip-code regions. Additionally, I would suggest conducting thorough testing and monitoring of the API to ensure that any errors or discrepancies are promptly identified and resolved. By proactively addressing these issues, we can enhance the user experience, improve brand search functionality, and ultimately mitigate any potential negative impact on customer satisfaction and retention.


Fundamentally, first-principle thinking is an idea or principle regarding how to address issues. In essence, you start by stripping things down to their most basic components, which can be useful for gaining clarity regarding the primary limiting factor, alternative remedies, and other issues.


The phrase “first principles thinking” was used, but I wouldn’t get too worked up over it. What it really means is that you could have done a better job of demonstrating your ability to dispute or question even the most basic presumptions. Children think from primary principles. Adults rarely raise questions about things. By using the PM toolkit and first principles thinking, I was able to transition domains with ease and maintain my generalist PM status. For instance, if you start a job in health care, you first ask yourself why people need it, and then you seek to expand your understanding of the subject by learning more and more. You can browse to web3 and pose the same essential queries there. Through a variety of research techniques, you ask these questions and look for the answers. Keep in mind that your value doesn’t come from learning everything there is to know about your problem area, but rather from questioning everything and then figuring out the solutions.

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In business, there is just one core concept. Start by focusing on the problems of the customer. You can refer to it by any name, including first principles, design thinking, and customer backwards. But you must always begin there.

Most product-related thought begins with “I have an idea.” Although that’s wonderful, you should reset.

Ask a few basic questions

  • who is my customer ?

  • Can I group them somehow ?

  • why are they my customer ?

  • how many of them are there ?

  • what are the problems they have ?

  • how big are the problems ?

  • how do you know they are real problems customers face ?

  • will they pay you if you solve the problem ?

  • what do you think will happen when you solve the problem ?

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