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The MECE Principle: What Is It? And Why Should All Consultants Master It

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September 29, 2021
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5 minutes
Experienced copywriter who spends a lot of money at restaurants and regrets it later.

MECE, pronounced as me-see, stands for Mutually Exclusive, Collectively Exhaustive. As a consultant, you’ll probably hear this term thousands of times in your career. Of all the different consulting frameworks out there, this is the one that consultants discuss the most. That is why you really, really need to get this right if you want to become a successful consultant.

As a consultant, you cannot leave any stone unturned, and that is why you need to present every possible solution. But at the same time, having a lot of analyses and solutions can be confusing to present to a client. This is where the MECE Framework comes into play. The MECE Principle helps organize solutions to a problem in a logical and coherent way.

The “mutually exclusive” category must only include items that are completely unique and independent of each other. And the term “collectively exhaustive” means that all the items of the list must include every single solution or scenario—not even a single one can be left behind.

Still confused? Don’t worry. In this article, we will apply the MECE Framework to two practical situations and also explain why MECE is the right framework to choose.

Practical Applications of the MECE Principle

The MECE Principle may be difficult to understand without a couple of examples. However, even though the MECE Framework looks complicated in the beginning. Once you start using it, it will help you make complicated processes way simpler! So, let’s consider an example.

“If you can’t describe your strategy in twenty minutes, simply and in plain language, you haven’t got a plan. ‘But,’ people may say, ‘I’ve got a complex strategy. It can’t be reduced to a page.’ That’s nonsense. That’s not a complex strategy. It’s a complex thought about the strategy.” – Lawrence Bossidy

Example #1:

Suppose a client, an American toy manufacturer, seeks your help in finding new foreign markets to expand into. After conducting in-depth research and analyzing several options, you come up with a list of the following international regions:

  • The European Union
  • Australia
  • Germany
  • Canada

Is the list mentioned above in accordance with the MECE Principle? No! Because Germany is in the European Union and that is why the list of all solutions is not mutually exclusive even if it includes all the possible solutions and is collectively exhaustive.

Now, let’s consider another list of solutions for the same problem. Here is the new list:

  • The European Union
  • Australia
  • The United Kingdom
  • Canada

So, is the MECE Framework used correctly in this new example? The answer to that question is a resounding yes! Since the UK is no longer in the EU, this list is mutually exclusive. Also, given that the aforementioned regions are the best foreign markets to expand into, the list is also collectively exhaustive, meaning that all the possible international markets that are good for expansion are listed.

Great. Now, let’s consider another example (a slightly complicated one) to understand the MECE Principle even better.

Example #2:

Suppose a health and nutrition company, that usually sells protein supplements, approaches you to help them with diversifying into the fitness equipment industry. And they want you to answer one question: Will they be profitable if they start selling their patented home exercise machine?

To answer this question, you, as a consultant, will need to create and analyze two different buckets of lists: Costs and Revenue.

Now, using the MECE Principle, you should list every possibility under the Costs list, such as: How much will the

  • manufacturing of the home exercise machine cost?
  • marketing and advertising cost?
  • distribution channels cost?
  • human resources cost?
  • shipping of one unit cost?

As you can see, all the items in the first bucket, that is Costs, are mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive.

Now, let’s move on to the next list, which is Revenue, and apply the MECE Framework again. The list of considerations in the Revenue section could contain the following items:

  • What will be the price of the home exercise machine?
  • How many units can the company realistically sell every month for the first year?
  • How many units can the unsatisfied customers return?

Now, you can analyze both these lists separately. If, after the analysis, it is found that the costs will exceed the revenue, then it means that the company won’t make any profit. And if the revenue exceeds costs, then the company can hope to earn profits and go ahead with the project.

Why Should Consultants Master the MECE Framework?

There are several consulting frameworks, like SWOT Analysis and the BCG Matrix, that consultants will use from time to time. But the MECE Framework is the most used framework to solve all sorts of problems.

Also, the MECE Principle helps keep things simple. You see, in the second example, the consultant was only asked if this new undertaking would be profitable or not. That is why, we only considered two aspects of business: revenue and costs. And under each list, every item was mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive. This means that before giving recommendations, we mention and consider every single unique scenario

And that is how consultants work! Instead of adding a giant load of irrelevant information and complicating things, consultants keep it to the point and precise. Furthermore, there is no room for guesswork or amateurishness in a consultant’s job. Every successful consultant expects Well-thought-out, logical, and viable solutions.

Bear in mind, however, that even though it was mentioned that the second example is a bit more complicated than the first one, a real-life example in a professional consulting role may be a lot more complicated than the second example. And in that sense, both of the aforementioned examples were simple.

But have faith, if you’re new, you’ll learn how to use the MECE Framework like a pro in no time if you have the right mentors around you. And if you’re already a pro, you could always practice more and hone your craft. In both cases, going for a certification in MECE is definitely a good idea.