First Principle Thinking: How Brilliant Minds Think Different

Original ideas are not born from assumptions in the past.  They spawn from the strategic and calculated alignment of ideas into unseeingly abnormal combinations creating new causes.

From the Beginning

Ab initio, latin term for ‘from the beginning,’ is used in the sciences commonly in physics. For example if a theoretical work is said to start directly at the level of established science and does not make assumptions such as empirical model and fitting parameters this is first principle thinking. We know that empirical models are based entirely on data. Data is often extrapolated or estimated into calibrated models. Then of course we have to make sense of this so we shove the data into a fitted model using regressions including: linear, quadratic, cubic, quartic, exponential, logarithmic, logistic, power or sine models.

These all expand on old thinking, stretching the old, into ‘new information’. (Hint: It’s not new.)

Truly great minds don’t think this way.  They use first principle thinking.  These are foundational propositions or assumptions that can’t be deduced from any other proposition or assumption.  In short, you can’t just read and connect the lines.  There are no lines to connect.

Aristotle to Descartes

In philosophy, first principle thinking is often called priori terms and uses arguments as opposed to posteriori terms or reasoned arguments. For philosophers, epistemology, is the home of first principle thinking.

Aristotle’s viewed first principles as “the first basis from which a thing is known” (Met. 1013a14–15)

Descartes described the concept of a first principle in the following excerpt from the preface to the Principles of Philosophy (1644): “but a perfect knowledge of all that man can know, as well for the conduct of his life as for the preservation of his health and the discovery of all the arts, and that knowledge to subserve these ends must necessarily be deduced from first causes; so that in order to study the acquisition of it (which is properly called [284] philosophizing), we must commence with the investigation of those first causes which are called Principles.”

Quantum mechanics took a leap from Schrödinger’s equation, calculating electronic structure. This idea, innovation or first principle didn’t fit any existing models based on experimental data. There was no line to connect. Schrödinger was a first principle thinker.

Pioneers Use First Principle Thinking

Where will the next big invention come from? What will be the next object, thing, or experience that transforms how we interact, with whom we collaborate and how society spends time?

We all know the customer experience is changing and consumers are demanding more. What if the next big thing is not linear?  It can’t be deducted from the information we have by logical analysis. The assumptions that guide your organizational security decisions, the assumptions that inspire your teams, the assumptions on how the best company’s innovate are old. They won’t bring us 10x results. All that information while interesting, like finding a shiny new penny, will not be game changers.

Look around your office.  Seriously, get up and look.  What do you see? Do you see first principles at work?  I doubt it. What you see is people falling behind: using thinking that is old.

The CIO leaders and innovators, the folks in your organization that push and are open to change, they don’t think the same.  They are different. Their minds simply don’t operate the same. This is how transformational change begins, from new causes – from first principles.

Mainstream and Its Misdirection for Innovation

The concept of first principles is the most powerful method for breaking down complex topics. First we can either think about problems using analogues. An example of this could be building a new online business system, based on the prior experience or experience you see in other industries.  This thinking rarely is innovative, or disruptive and is generally ineffective resulting in low customer satisfaction. Why? Oh I saw that already, “yes it works ok.”  The second approach to thinking through a problem is first principle.  This decomposes an idea into the most fundamental components.  For example if you’re trying to understand culture or patterns of consumer behavior you don’t start by reading recent published works on the topic.  You go back, way back to the beginning.  You understand how humans evolved and why patterns of behavior existed 2000 years ago then you work your way forward (Powers, 2014). So your deductions on consumer behavior would be original and be rooted in your research (Powers, 2014). Find the intersection of value. The value you see, that others don’t. Why? They are not looking.


Ask yourself.  What percentage of your time do you spend reading mainstream articles, magazines and books because a ‘friend recommended it’ and he/she is smart so you figure you better read it?  You’re not going to transform teams that way.   New ideas and value won’t be created that way.  Use first principles and then build.

Side note: It was funny because I didn’t even know I was building ideas this way until just this week.  Looking over the last three weeks this is the approach I unknowingly took when researching influence, knowledge management, and the background of original inventions. Think different for different results.

Daily Examples of First Principle Thinking

Here are a few examples that are a bit more practical, to ground your frame of reference.

Companies need big data to be competitive. “Through 2015, 85% of Fortune 500 organizations will be unable to exploit big data for competitive advantage. – Gartner in September 12, 2013

First principle: This is not first principle thinking. This assumes a linear trend that old data will be needed in the future.  What if future competitive advantages have nothing to do with data? Is spending money on archiving and organizing old data valuable for breakthrough competitive advantages? Start from the beginning with people and ask why data is created. Then go back more, when there was no data. How was value created? Who were the main creators of value? Is there a pattern?

Owning a House is Important to build Long Term Equity

First Principle: We can look at patterns of house ownership and wealth distributions based on geography and correlate that to total lifetime equity, but it’s based on assumptions. It’s not first principle thinking. There are entrepreneurs that started with no equity, never owned a house and are millionaires.  If we plugged in a house early, most wouldn’t have had enough equity to do anything, except live an average life in their house ‘building equity.’ So is owning a house important to long term equity?

One must exercise daily to be healthy

First principle: We know that running and cross fit is healthy (an assumption), and that training is important (another assumption). However, when did people start being not healthy? If you worked out 2-3 times a week lightly, and ate reasonability would you be healthy? Define healthy? You see a fit girl in a swimsuit, curves all working in the right direction, or a guy at the gym jacked looking pretty sporty, that’s healthy right? What if we re-define health with quality of life and life expectancy?  Is the joint pressure applied by running daily healthy now?  Is the continual over stressing of your knees with intense clean-n-jerks healthy? This is the type of reframing, rethinking and application of new thought first principle innovators are applying.

New ideas are the most contradictory. So next time you’re exploring a new way to do something, or a team member approaches you with ‘an idea that won’t work’ pause.  Apply first principle thinking; this is how CIO leaders think different, perform different, for outstanding results!

CIO100 Leaders think differently. It’s an honor to be named to the CIOonline’s CIO100 List of transformative IT projects, find out who else made the list. Click HERE.

Thank you to everyone that made the 2015 CIO100 possible.  You all know who you are, and you’re amazing. It was a privilege to digitize healthcare and transform the consumer experience and learn from you all.

Peter Nichol

Below highlights our amazing innovation story, transforming business through digitization. I am proud to have led such an amazing team.


Building on the already successful Connecticut online health insurance exchange, Access Health CT (ahCT) took the next step to build the only mobile platform available nationally that consumers can use for enrolling in health coverage, obtaining government benefits, accessing their account information and submitting their verification documents. It uses a scalable, software-as-a-service platform to keep costs and risks low. The ahCT Mobile apps are fully integrated with the ahCT Web portal for real-time synchronization and an improved consumer experience. The Android and iOS mobile apps are built for speed, reducing the average health insurance and benefits application time from traditional Web channels by more than half to 10 to 15 minutes. Once enrolled, consumers can use the mobile app to check their messages, receive notices and submit verification documents using the camera on their mobile devices. Other states are inquiring about using the mobile platform for their health insurance exchanges.

PROJECT TYPE: Cloud Computing Services or Software as a Service (SaaS), Mobile or Wireless, Security Technologies

BUSINESS GOAL: Customer Impact

CIO: Peter Nichol, Head of IT

Read the full story of the digitization and launch of the Connecticut Mobile application: Part 1 and Part 2.


Hornsby, J. (2015). World History with a Swagger: Rene Descartes (Online Image). Retrieved August 11, 2015, from

Powers, A. (2014). Understanding First Principles. Retrieved August 11, 2015, from

Vas, L. (2014). Empirical Models: mathematical Modeling. Retrieved from

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Peter is a technology executive with over 20 years of experience, dedicated to driving innovation, digital transformation, leadership, and data in business. He helps organizations connect strategy to execution to maximize company performance. He has been recognized for Digital Innovation by CIO 100, MIT Sloan, Computerworld, and the Project Management Institute. As Managing Director at OROCA Innovations, Peter leads the CXO advisory services practice, driving digital strategies. Peter was honored as an MIT Sloan CIO Leadership Award Finalist in 2015 and is a regular contributor to on innovation. Peter has led businesses through complex changes, including the adoption of data-first approaches for portfolio management, lean six sigma for operational excellence, departmental transformations, process improvements, maximizing team performance, designing new IT operating models, digitizing platforms, leading large-scale mission-critical technology deployments, product management, agile methodologies, and building high-performance teams. As Chief Information Officer, Peter was responsible for Connecticut’s Health Insurance Exchange’s (HIX) industry-leading digital platform transforming consumerism and retail-oriented services for the health insurance industry. Peter championed the Connecticut marketplace digital implementation with a transformational cloud-based SaaS platform and mobile application recognized as a 2014 PMI Project of the Year Award finalist, CIO 100, and awards for best digital services, API, and platform. He also received a lifetime achievement award for leadership and digital transformation, honored as a 2016 Computerworld Premier 100 IT Leader. Peter is the author of Learning Intelligence: Expand Thinking. Absorb Alternative. Unlock Possibilities (2017), which Marshall Goldsmith, author of the New York Times No. 1 bestseller Triggers, calls "a must-read for any leader wanting to compete in the innovation-powered landscape of today." Peter also authored The Power of Blockchain for Healthcare: How Blockchain Will Ignite The Future of Healthcare (2017), the first book to explore the vast opportunities for blockchain to transform the patient experience. Peter has a B.S. in C.I.S from Bentley University and an MBA from Quinnipiac University, where he graduated Summa Cum Laude. He earned his PMP® in 2001 and is a certified Six Sigma Master Black Belt, Masters in Business Relationship Management (MBRM) and Certified Scrum Master. As a Commercial Rated Aviation Pilot and Master Scuba Diver, Peter understands first hand, how to anticipate change and lead boldly.