The MECE principle is a framework for solving complicated problems by breaking them down into smaller ones. MECE stands for Mutually Exclusive and Collectively Exhaustive, meaning that by using this method you will be covering all possibilities (Collectively Exhaustive) while avoiding any overlapping or double work in the process (Mutually Exclusive).
The MECE framework is a top-down one. This means that you take a very complicated problem and you start breaking it down into smaller elements. These elements should not overlap, and they should cover all the relevant possibilities related to the problem.
Learn more about MECE through this in a few simple examples. If we divide all the people on the planet into two groups, ones that love Van Gogh’s art, and others that don’t like it, is that a MECE compilable division?
The answer is no, it isn’t. While the two groups would be mutually exclusive – people who like his art will not belong in the group with people who don’t, and vice versa, this division is not collectively exhaustive.
Some people haven’t seen his work and don’t have a formed opinion on it, hence don’t see themselves in any of the two groups. So in this case, the third group for such people would be necessary.
Ok, how about we split all populations into those who are 25 or older and those who are under 30 years of age?
Still a no here. While this time the division is collectively exhaustive, as it includes people of all ages, both younger than 30, and older than 25, it is not mutually exclusive. The gap between 25 and 30 represents individuals that belong to both of those groups, and to be mutually exclusive – elements between groups must not overlap.
Very well, then we split the population those shorter than 6 feet, and those who are at least 6 feet tall or more. Now we’ve got it all covered, right?
Bingo. A simple check proves it – people who are shorter than 6 feet will not be found in the 6 feet or taller category. The same goes the other way around. On the other hand, the height range covers all possibilities where human height is considered. So it is both mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive.
This is of course a very basic example, just to get you on track here. In a real situation, for example, you would be using this framework to break down the company’s expenses, segmenting them into categories such as workers’ salaries, ordered parts costs, office or space renting costs, utility expenses, etc.
Why is the MECE principle so important in this business and is always considered a must-know? Well, it’s an efficient top-down problem-structuring system that’s been proven times over. It allows you to approach most problems accurately, making progress step-by-step until you get to the bottom of the problem. If we had to narrow it down to a few reasons why it is so good, it would have to be the following:
- MECE frameworks are super-efficient
It eliminates double work. Since the elements in the framework will be mutually exclusive, once you have analyzed one group, you know that its area is covered and you will not have to go through the same thing in a different group.
- MECE makes sure you don’t leave something out
If you’re doing it right, your elements are collectively exhaustive, meaning that all possibilities are covered.
- MECE puts things in order, preventing a chaotic approach
A lot of people will tend to approach a problem by brainstorming the first ideas that pop into their minds. This is never a good approach, as it will result in an unorganized list of random questions that will most likely overlap, as well as miss important parts of the problem.
Using MECE Correctly
MECE certainly is a great principle for problem-solving, but only when it is applied adequately. There are a few things to keep in mind when you go about making MECE divisions for your analysis.
Picking the Right Segmentation Approach
Generally, you will come across two different approaches – mathematical segmentation, or a logical manner in subdividing the problem.
The mathematical approach should be used whenever possible, as it guarantees a MECE framework. E.g. you split a company’s revenue into a Quantity x Average Product/Service Price,
In other cases, you logically approach the segmentation. Depending on the case at hand, you might segment into different stages of product creation or different revenue streams, different consumer groups (by age, income, interests…), etc.
Pick the Right Drivers for Segmentation
When segmenting your problem, there are always different ways to do it, of which many will be valid. It is important to pick the right direction to segment the problem. For instance, you decide to segment your potential customer base by height and by income level. While getting MECE frameworks, not every branch will be relevant to the problem at hand depending on the business in question.
If you’re selling Ferraris, height will not give you any relevant results, yet the income level will, as you are targeting only the class of people that can afford a Ferrari. If you are recruiting for a basketball team, you might want to keep the height as your main drive for segmentation.
Working Down the Issue Tree
As you progress with breaking down the problem, you will be adding new levels to your structure. Each set will be getting new subsets and spreading out until you reach a level where your elements are simple enough not to need any more subdivisions.
As you add more subsets, always keep an eye on the levels above and how the new subsets feed into them. Once you have unbreakable elements and you begin to see what might be causing problems, you can set a hypothesis and test it out by working your way back up the tree.
The MECE principle is an incredibly important part of a consultant’s work. Once mastered, you will often begin to think in a MECE compatible way even with your issues, and the more you apply it, the better you will get the hang of it, and see ways to break down a problem more clearly. Aside from helping with analyzing and structuring, it helps with communicating your answers in a more organized fashion as well.