Using first principles thinking can be very effective when it comes to understanding and breaking down complicated situations and challenges into smaller elements. This is what practitioners do on a daily basis.

Greek philosopher Aristotle defined and explained first principles as “the first basis from which a thing is known.”

Using first principles thinking can be very effective when it comes to understanding and breaking complicated situations and problems down, before coming up with original solutions.

This, of course, is what communications practitioners have to do almost daily.

How is ‘first principles’ thinking applied in industry?

In business, first principles thinking is about looking at a challenge and breaking it down to its most basic layer or premise. At this point, the challenge has a foundational or fundamental element to it. Once this foundation is known, thinking can be applied to build it up into new forms and means and seek to solve the challenge from a different approach or direction.

First principles thinking runs counter to thinking by analogy. Analogy is our default mode of thinking because it allows for us to think in terms of what has happened before, and especially what has worked before. This method of thinking allows us to avoid bad ideas since they have been proven wrong before. It builds on ideas incrementally. Therefore the output on challenges will also incremental to how others have solved for the challenge before.

From a thought process perspective, these are the steps associated with first principles thinking:

  1. Identify the challenge or the problem – spend time here to learn and get to know the challenge; think in terms of urgency or criticality
  2. Clarify that this challenge is the right problem to solve for – be certain that this is the right problem and not just a symptom of the problem
  3. Break down and reduce the challenge to its elements – ask why many times to reach the foundation or root of the challenge
  4. Solve for the challenge – think of at least 3 solutions with different approaches, combinations and dimensions (e.g. customer-focused, efficient operations, profit margin vs. revenue, etc)
  5. Question the elements and the challenge; repeat earlier steps where required

Consider whether your solution is meant to be disruptive and solving for a customer’s challenge, or organisational solving to become more effective and efficient (also called Lean Thinking).

Understanding the WHYs and the WHATs before getting to the HOWs and WHENs

Before we get to open our “communications toolkit”, we find that we have to understand the Whys and the Whats about and around the situation.

We have to figure out why we are moving in a specific or selected direction before we decide what to do about the challenge or problem. Once we have bridged the why and the what with a direction and approach, we can decide about the tool to use and go about solution-finding and picking the right timing to initiate or execute.

The Strategic Communications Group (SCG) seeks to enable and empower strategic communications organisations, teams and practitioners to become better at their craft, improve industry and provide people with value through the support of platforms and tools.

Through the Strategic Communications Academy, we provide a training platform and service focused on skill sets and competencies for communications and Public Relations teams and practitioners.

Learning pathways and topics include building basic and foundational capabilities on writing, media relations, the use of content and the application of communications through to developing good project management skills and client/stakeholder relationships for practitioners.

SCG also provides consultancy services to organisations looking for support on branding and narrative, issues management and crisis communications. Our Academy trainers are also available to coach and train executives and teams.

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How does applying first principles look like in practice for strategic communications?

Broadly speaking, many organisations face growth, expansion or consolidation challenges. Communications is always an element organisations have to own to ensure that industry, customers and partners are influenced and supportive of our efforts.

Approaching these challenges with first principles allows for practitioners to:

  1. Identify the key challenge or issue associated with the organisation’s need to communicate. This can range from a simple product or service launch to an issue that the organisation has to disassociate from and even to M&As.
  2. We have to deduce what are the fundamentals in any situation that requires explanation or education of our intended audience. Critically, we have to decide whether this is the right challenge to deal with, and whether we have the right messaging to use
  3. Determining the root of the challenge, and what positioning is required, and whether we have reached the fundamental need is also important. For example, when launching a product, are we addressing the need for the product category, or just explaining the features.
  4. When solving for the challenge, are we using the right positioning, messaging and narrative, or just using an earlier story and adapting it to the present?
  5. Once the solution has been identified, we have to question its elements. Are these the right ones, or the correct combination of tools to solve the challenge? What happens if we release this solution, what is the impact and the anticipated next steps. Remember, we can reiterate and start from an earlier step again. We do not need to get attached to ideas and solutions.
first principles

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The academy provides talent with a structured training programme and curriculum covering hard and soft skills and capabilities related to the practice of strategic communications and public relations.

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