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).
- M.E. is mutual exclusivity, and it means that you avoid overlapping elements in a description.
- C.E. is collective exhaustiveness, and it means that your description includes all possible elements.
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:
- describe products and group them into categories in a way that is clear.
- write clean emails that are easy to follow.
- structure spreadsheet variables.
- break down a problem and arrive at possible solutions. (create issue trees!).
Proper MECE usage
For a correct usage of MECEness, there are critical 2 tasks:
- 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.
- 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.
- A trunk is made of wood. This violates mutual exclusivity (M.E.) and happens when we mix different classes of attributes in a sequence tree. In my example I mixed a material (wood) and morphology (trunk).
- There is no mention of roots. This violates collective exhaustiveness (C.E.) and happens when you forget elements that should be together (roots, trunk, branches, etc..).
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.
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?