Posted by: Joe Hoffman | July 5, 2008

First Principles

Some thoughts about simplicity and first principles vs laundry list management.

I was thinking about a conversation that I had this morning, this blog and my approach to writing about management and leadership.  The realization that what I write may appear to some to be overly simplistic struck me.  Well, it is true that many of my approaches are pretty simple.  I was reading something in the Q&A section of LinkedIn the other day where some self-appointed guru (with a book to sell) was going on about how he had reduced management down to 64 things to do and around 112 reports from the staff an now only works a couple hours month in high six figure jobs.

Quite a contrast between us!  I could not remember 64 things, 112 reports, and their appropriate applicability if my life depended on it.

I started my career fixing the iron, repairing broken computers back when God wore short pants.  We had two kinds of technicians, guys (they were all guys in the 60s) that worked off a laundry list of symptoms/repairs and guys that worked from first principles and system behaviors.  It turns out that I have a terrible memory for lists or recalling a past problem so pretty much each time I was confronted by a problem/symptom I had to work it out from scratch.  If I wanted to be good at what I did, I had to understand the first principles of the machines and systems that I worked with.  The up side was that in a matter of a year and half, Control Data had me flying around the country to resolve the problems that the laundry list folks could not fix.

What does this have to being a great manger and leader of people?  Take the issue of delegation that I wrote about in an earlier post:


I suggest that everything that you ever read/heard about “how to manage the problem of delegation” resolves to three factors, Capability, Trust and Reporting.  You can throw away the rules about who, when, why, responsibility, authority, CYA and the list goes on.  Can they do it, how much trust have they demonstrated and what level of reporting back do you NEED is all that matters for any given situation.  Simplistic?  Not really.  Simple to apply?  Absolutely!  A First Principle approach.

Another example is the number one job of a manager.  Do you want your people to perform in an outstanding fashion?  Make it easy for them.  A simple rule.  I am not saying that you dumb it down, just get the blocks out of the way.  How do you find out what is in their way? Ask them and then fix it.  A simple rule, a First Principle to use, that explodes in a myriad of ways to fit each situation that you encounter.



  1. Joe,

    You boiled a summary of this post down to “Intuition or learned rules, what works best for you?”

    I am strongly creative and I love researching. I’m quite capable of logical thinking. I’m also observant. I love puzzles, of just about any variety. One of my favorite hobbies has become brainstorming, and one of the reasons I’m so good at it is because I’m good at quieting my thoughts down. Understanding how these groups of skills work together is to finally understand intuition.

    Intuition is not something magical that just happens — it’s a subconscious synthesis of knowledge and sublimated rulesets i.e. intuition requires learning, even learned rules. The conscious processes become the unconscious synthesis of a multitude of information that the conscious brain is incapable of deliberately juggling. Given time, “mental space”, and sufficient data, the answer to a problem often springs to conscious thought in a process that seems magical or even divine, but the disconnected parts that contributed to the transcendent whole passed into subconscious realms via sensory inputs, whether consciously learned/contemplated, or not….

    I don’t see “intuition” or “learned rules” as exclusive–those who claim intuition (or even “creativity”) probably learned rules from somewhere, whether rote structured learning or “merely” observation. The big skill in intuition is harvesting knowledge & observations then getting your conscious thoughts out of the way, so the subconscious is unhindered in processing information and presenting it to the conscious mind for action.

    Businesspeople would be very well served by a course in meditation and achieving trance states, then practicing meditation during their renewal periods throughout the workday. It’s amazing what your subconscious or “intuition” can come up with if you give the hamster wheel of conscious thinking a good respite.

    In the tradition of simplicity, good first principles and the qualities of many good leaders, getting your mind off of things can be the best thing you can do for yourself and your business. It’s cheap, it’s portable, and it doesn’t take up room in the overhead luggage compartment. There are even podcasts about meditation for crying out loud! 🙂

    It does take skill to get out of your own way though, to invite your subconscious to participate especially if you have been ignoring it. That’s why I sell my skills with brainstorming and intuition to people as a consultant under the guise of “out of the box consultations”. Intuition for hire. It still requires data gathering and synthesis, but the properly nurtured subconscious can be generous and fast with answers.

    That’s my soapbox for the moment!


  2. Hi Criss,

    Your comment is a very eloquent discussion of the intuitive process and you are correct that underlying the “intuitive” experience lies a base of knowledge of how things work. The critical distinction I was trying to make in the original post was that working from a list based repertoire, i.e., “if this happens, do this” leaves you unprepared for dealing with a novel situation, which is best approached from first principles.

    Getting to the “Eureka” moment, whether though a meditation approach or simply letting go of the problem for awhile, tends to be an individual thing in my opinion. The latter works best for me. I don’t have the patience for meditation.

    There is a related behavior that many great mangers and leaders demonstrate, being able to infer missing information with a high probability of being correct. I’ve seen a number of studies around this but am not aware of a definitive conclusion.

    Great comment and discussion Criss.


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