A First Principle can be seen as a Prime Directive (as a modern pop culture reference). It is basically determined by you. You choose what is.
However, there’s a little bit more to it;
… in the first place, they must be so clear and evident that the human mind, when it attentively considers them, cannot doubt of their truth; in the second place, the knowledge of other things must be so dependent on them as that though the principles themselves may indeed be known apart from what depends on them, the latter cannot nevertheless be known apart from the former.
This is a partial from René Descartes‘ concept of a first principle.
Still, Star Treks “Prime Directive” is based on a philosophical approach to interstellar behaviour. And it goes;
No identification of self or mission. No interference with the social development of said planet. No references to space or the fact that there are other worlds or civilizations.
This directive can easily be seen as a First Principle. It is the defining rule. Despite Kirk breaking it all the bloody time, it can be held up as a self-evident truth with all other directives derived from this first one (i.e. The directive on how to approach a new civilisation).
First Principle in a company
As a conceptual thought exercise, we could assume the following First Principle: “Client satisfaction is absolute paramount.” Not an unlikely principle to be held, I’m sure.
Any and all other truths and actions are then derived from this First Principle.
When you hold Descartes’ concept of the principle against it (the first quote above), than it ticks the boxes.
It is clear and evident, and can hardly be questioned. Although, of course, there should be room for a healthy debate. But, if a new (or existing) employee should challenge it without proper argument, then clearly s/he doesn’t understand it, and might never grasp the severity of the principle, its meaning or its consequences. Any argument, such as; “I’m hungry, I’m taking a 2 hour lunch.” is nullified by the First Principle when there is an urgent deadline.
Or, a derived principle (from the First) could be; “We deliver on time.”
This is a philosophical principle, stated as a directive, implemented as a rule.
We could, relatively easily, come up with a set of principles which lean on each other, but with the next one always depending on the former, and all utterly depending on the first (see Appendix A).
First Principle as a Personal Guide
I did not intend to write this post as a self-help post. I’m not good at this. My mind is much more comfortable with ideas and concepts in an analytical setting, within the comfortable confines of a theoretical company.
However, writing about fundamental concepts tends to illicit further thinking.
Using a First Principle in a personal setting isn’t as mad as it sounds. It has its benefits. For starters, it makes you think about your priorities, probably even a significant amount. It is not an easy task to come up with an all defining, all guiding principle to which you can hold yourself under all circumstances. I bet Gene L. Coon (no, it wasn’t Gene Roddenberry) took a few tries to come up with the Prime Directive.
And if we can agree that it is not an easy task, then we might also agree that it is actually a worth while exercise. If only to rearrange your thoughts, to seek priorities and disregard items on your list that do not seem so important after all.
Just to be clear. We are not talking about New Years resolutions, these are not principles. “I will loose 10 kilo’s” is not a First Principle. These are much more fundamental, and should be, by their nature, not be broken.
The amount of New Years resolutions broken is staggering (almost all), the amount of broken First Principles is, or damn well should be, null.
Consider a personal First Principle as a constitution. No, you don’t have to write an historical document upon which an entire nation will be founded, although, it would be cool. What I mean is the severity of the document.
If only you would write down one principle (your First), that alone could be pave the way for you to explore others.
Something like: My best is always more than I think.
Meaning, you can always take another step, you can always do better, work a tad harder and simply give more.
Other principles can be derived from that one truth. Moments where you think that calling your Mom once a month is enough, or the best you can do. Or, when you are a writer, writing 1 page a day is the best you can do. Or, when you are a teacher, reaching one kid a week is the best you can do. Or…
When you would accept the above as a First Principle, you can start living towards it, conditioning yourself and, eventually, subconsciously live by it.
A First Principle is a fundamental truth from which all other truths are derived.
And you determine this (first) truth.
After reading (or listening to) the biography of Musk (by Ashlee Vance) I decided that Musk might not be the sweetest or most thoughtful person, but he is a genius and a great thinker. He gets things done.
And one thing he does is apply a First Principle to his endeavours.
(possible) Guiding Principles;
- Client satisfaction is absolute paramount
- We deliver on time
- We produce the highest quality possible
- Communication benefits all
- Ideas and suggestions are always welcome
- Teamwork sparks creativity and innovation
- Supportive criticism equals growth (respect)
- Personal growth is encouraged
- Professional growth is required
- Everyone benefits
As you may notice, only the last clearly states a benefit (or the actual word benefit). In other words, “we should have fun doing what we’re doing” doesn’t need to be a principle. It is a by-product of the existing principles.
Statements like: “You can ‘dress up’ your desk” or “bring a plant, or something decorative to the office” or “play some music” or “take your time with lunch” shouldn’t be explicitly mentioned (there’s no end to that list). These are earned benefits, not given upfront. A privilege, not a right.
The company culture which flows from the principles provides the mentality. This goes both ways. The company needs to provide the culture in which the principles can be uphold.
This means that, yes, you may ask a lot, especially when deadlines are lurking, but, when times are mellow, the mentality should reflect this.
Or, we are pretty mellow in the office. We want you to be comfortable here, but, when we’re facing a deadline, we deliver , with the highest quality possible.
This is, in essence, Quality.