How Should I Pronounce MECE? Origins of a Key Business Term
Anyone learning about business communication is going to run across the ubiquitous acronym “MECE” – meaning Mutually Exclusive and Collectively Exhaustive. But how should you pronounce it?
This same stumbling block comes up for almost everyone. It might ostensibly seem reasonably unimportant, but for those preparing for management consulting case interviews– where MECE is a crucial concept – there is a pretty understandable desire not to look ignorant in conversation with an interviewer.
So how should you pronounce MECE? Well, the answer is, “it’s complicated.”
There is a short answer and a longer one. We’ll cover both, but we’ll also use the excuse to delve into some of the fascinating histories of the MECE concept and its creator – the marvelous Barbara Minto.
In 1963, Barbara Minto was one of the first eight women ever admitted to Harvard Business School – doing so without having had an undergraduate degree.
After graduating from Harvard, Minto went on to top management consulting firm McKinsey, where she was that company’s first-ever first female consultant.
From the beginning at McKinsey, Minto found that many of her fellow consultants wrote surprisingly poorly. The ideas were good, but the reports they were embedded in were confusing and ineffective as a result.
As such, Minto was increasingly recruited to edit reports by her peers, significantly improving the documents’ impact with her clear, structured approach.
In 1966, Minto was posted from the US to the McKinsey office in London. There, the miners’ strikes of the time meant that workdays were often cut short.
Often unable to work in their office due to power cuts, the team would decant into a local pub and work on frameworks for case studies and methods for structuring ideas.
Minto enjoyed the way her British colleagues thought, and this period allowed her to develop her structured approach to business communication in more depth.
Spending time in McKinsey offices on continental Europe, Minto also realized that the muddled, unstructured communication she had observed at McKinsey was not limited to English speakers. Instead, good ideas being let down by lousy presentation seemed to be something of a universal.
Life After McKinsey
Finally, the 1973 Oil Crisis led to a downturn in the consulting industry. In turn, this prompted McKinsey to make several redundancies at the London office. Despite her formidable contributions, Minto was one of those laid off.
After McKinsey, Minto toyed with the idea of returning to the United States to search for new employment. However, in the end, she decided to remain in London and founded a business developing the methods she had pioneered at McKinsey into a coherent system for business communication.
Since then, Minto has returned to McKinsey as an external instructor to teach her methods. Within that large global firm, Minto’s ideas have been described as a religion.
Individuals also seek Minto out to have her work her magic on their communication via her courses, and she has also been employed as an instructor by large corporate firms across diverse sectors. McKinsey’s rivals have also applied Minto so they can also use her methods. In this regard, she has effectively become a consultant to the consultants!
The Pyramid Principle
The MECE rule is set out as part of Minto’s hugely famous book, “The Pyramid Principle.”
As you might expect from the title, the Pyramid Principle is the central concept in that book. In short, this is a “top-down” way to present information. When using the Pyramid principle, one presents information in a particular sequence:
- Start by stating the takeaway or recommendation for action.
- Bolster the critical takeaway with a selection of supporting arguments.
- In turn, support each argument with a small number of critical facts or findings.
This structure is frequently presented in the framework below:
Building Pyramids with The MECE Rule
The MECE rule is a vital part of implementing the Pyramid Principle.
The general idea is that, where ideas are broken down in this kind of pyramid, you should pay attention to doing so in a Mutually Exclusive and Collectively Exhaustive manner.
It is possible to give quite involved definitions as to what this means. However, we can simply state that ideas should not overlap and that.
Example of The MECE Rule in Action
To take a simple example case, let’s say that we wish to divide up the population of the United Kingdom. Perhaps we are splitting up groups of customers for a marketing exercise.
We might try to divide up the population by profession, having one category for those who work for manufacturing companies and one category for those in offices.
However, this way of breaking down the population is not a MECE definition for the following reasons:
- It is not Collectively Exhaustive (CE) as it fails to account for everyone in the population. For one thing, there will be people working in plenty of other places: for example, retail and agriculture. Also, there will be large parts of the UK population who do not work at all, including children, the elderly, and the unemployed.
- Slightly more subtly, this breakdown is not Mutually Exclusive (ME), as it is possible to be in both categories. Pretty much any manufacturing company will have office staff, and these individuals would sit in both categories.
These problems will prevent this segmentation of the population being as useful as it might be. In a business context, a dysfunctional grouping will not help the user maximize profits.
A better MECE way of dividing the UK population would be by age. For example, we could split the community into five age brackets, as with the following list:
- Segment 1: 0-15 years old
- Segment 2: 15-30 years old
- Segment 3: 30-45 years old
- Segment 4: 45-60 years old
- Segment 5: 60+ years old
This kind of breakdown might be useful as a way for a business to break down the population for a marketing campaign, targeting specific age groups, and developing separate strategies for each.
An essential quality of MECE breakdowns is that they are generally not unique. There will typically be multiple ways to divide a set of entities in a MECE way. Thus, for the UK population, we could also make MECE segmentations by gender, income bracket, level of education, etc.
Segmenting the same population in different ways can be an excellent method to practice and understand the MECE definition.
How Does Barbara Minto Pronounce MECE?
Barbara Minto insists that MECE should be pronounced to rhyme with “niece,” and it has been clear that she feels that since she invented the term, she should be allowed to determine how it is pronounced.
Unfortunately for Minto, though, things are not quite how she would like them to be.
How Should YOU Pronounce MECE?
Unfortunately for Minto, her pronouncements on pronunciation are notable precisely because she favored way of saying MECE did not catch on.
Instead, the standard way of pronouncing MECE is currently “Me See.”
Regardless of Minto’s wishes, this pronunciation is now ubiquitous. Whatever you think of Minto’s story and whether or not we should “take her side” in the matter, if you have a job interview coming up, you had the best stick to saying MECE the way everyone else does.
The inevitable question as to how to pronounce MECE provides a great excuse to delve into both the history of the term and the biography of its creator.
The slightly sad and final answer is that you should probably pronounce MECE as everyone else does. Wrongly…