The MECE framework for thinking

Created on 16 Apr 2016. Updated on 07 Aug 2020.

There are many ways to organize your thoughts. My favorite go-to framework is MECE.

What is MECEness

MECE is a framework to help you think! To be MECE, you try to make all of your descriptions mutually exclusive and collective exhaustive (M.E.C.E).

You usually learn MECEness in consulting.

Where to use MECE?

Everywhere! A big part of my value as a founder and CEO is to be structured. And the biggest part of it is the M.E.C.E. effort. You can use MECE to:

Proper MECE usage

For a correct usage of MECEness, there are critical 2 tasks:

  1. Picking relevant attributes. There’s endless attributes to use, but you likely don’t want o I’ll offer a few that I placed on the following 6 groups.
    • What makes X. In the tree example, we’re talking about the morphology: roots, trunk, branches, etc. We could also pick a more detailed level, like the types of chemical compounds that exist on a tree.
    • What does X look like. In the tree example, we can use attributes like color, but also different ones like height, or smell and texture.
    • What are the needs of X. In this example, it can be the sun, water, nutrients in the soil, or the wind to carry the seeds.
    • The evolution of X. For a tree, we’d be talking about the seed stage, sprout, full tree formation, or different seasons.
    • The products of X. In the example, it could be ashes, another tree, fertiliser, food, carbon. This one is tricky, ok. You get the picture.
    • The challenges with handling X. In the example, it could be proper nutrition for trees, pest control.
  2. Layering. The sequence of the attributes and what tree you build with them is very important.
    • To describe a tree, it makes more sense to do morphology first and then color than the reverse.
      • The following is a bit strange: “A tree is partly green, brown and possibly other colors. Leaves are mostly green, and branches can be green toon. Brown is only shown on the trunk and branches. Etc.”
      • The following is better: “A tree has roots, a trunk, branches, leaves and fruits and flowers. The roots are typically whiteish, the trunk is …”

Example: Improper usage

Let’s look at an example: Describing a tree. When describing a tree, one answer can be “A tree is made of wood, a trunk, branches and green leaves. Branches also have bright and colorful flowers and fruits.”

We can see that there are at least two problems with this description.

Example: Issue trees

Issue Trees are a pretty good way to use MECEness to find the solution to a challenge. In a issue tree, you progressively break down you main problem into smaller problems to be solved.

For example, when you are starting a company, you can approach your business plan with an issue tree. In this case, the issue tree will touch a few basic points which the investors will want covered.

  1. What will we offer?
    • What customer problem are we trying to solve?
      • What is the specific pain we are trying to solve?
      • What potential customer base has this pain?
      • What are the differences in serving different types of customers?
      • What is the makeup of the segment to explore first?
    • What breadth of offerings should there be?
      • In a world without any constraints, which are the ideal solutions?
      • In the real-world, what can we offer to solve the existing pain?
      • What are the friction points between our vs. ideal solution?
      • How simply can we convey the value of our solution?
  2. Is this an attractive market?
    • Who is the competition and alternatives?
      • What is currently available in the market?
      • How fully do they solve the customer pain?
      • How do they sell it?
    • What are the key success factors in this market?
      • Which people and skills are essential?
      • Which processes and tools are essential?
      • What is the ideal position in the ecosystem?
    • What are the risks with our approach?
      • What risks are born from suppliers, partners and clients?
      • What legal or other risks and concerns are there?
      • How will conditions evolve and how will we monitor them to stay ahead?
  3. Is this a potential profitable market?
    • What are the expected startup, fixed, and variable costs?
      • What are the costs of starting?
      • What are the fixed costs?
      • What are the variable costs?
    • What is the expected pricing?
      • What is the pricing of current options?
      • How do different pricing approaches compare?
      • What margin can we extract from expected price and costs?