Do things fit into neat categories?

Is a Jaffa Cake a biscuit or a cake? Is a flapjack? Is a tomato a fruit or a vegetable? Is a worker an employee, a ‘hidden employee’, or a freelancer?

These are decisions we must make — or think we must — in management all the time. And more often than not, they limit creativity, innovation, and our ability to maintain good customer relations.

McKinsey, one of the older consultancies in the world, and amongst the best paid, use the schema ‘Mutually Exclusive and Collectively Exhaustive’ — MECE.

It was invented by Barbara Minto, one of my heroes, whose ‘pyramid principle’ is an elegant guide to clear writing. Like the pyramid principle, MECE is a guide to clear thinking.

Every point of data that is analysed must belong to one category, and one category only — that’s ‘mutually exclusive’. No fuzzy overlaps.

And the points of data must cover the whole of the relevant territory of concern — that’s ‘collectively exhaustive’. No gaps.

But let me bring you back to Jaffa Cakes, Flapjacks, Tomatoes, employees. To ‘policy officers’, who became ‘comms officers’ when there was an audit to reduce policy staff. And comms officers who were ‘community engagement’ officers when comms was being audited.

It’s all in the definitions.

People who really believe there are Facts out there in the world, just waiting to be Classified are, in fact, imposing their model on the world.

The messier the world, the cleaner the data, the more complex the definitions. It’s a fundamental challenge.

In business, as in consultancy, science, politics, and advertising, we quickly lose sight of those pesky, complex definitions, and start working with the nice clean results as if they reflect the real world.

It creates unfairness in tax (just google the examples above!), mistakes and failures in business — but allows us to think we are living in a manageable world.

Powerful thinking tools, like this one, are good when under control — very dangerous when in control. State, restate, and tiresomely relitigate your definitions — or die by them.

When have you seen classification create problems? What was the upside people were actually going for?

Have a look at:

4 thoughts on “Do things fit into neat categories?

  1. I think it is dangerously naive to think that when things like* MECE are deployed it is within the conscious approach of an ethical actor. Not that I believe much in the agency of actors, because its more systemy** innit? Usually. We are pawns of nested CASes – Nicholas Negroponte: ” the duck at the front is not the leader, it’s just the duck at the front.(Being Digital, the 90s)

    I don’t believe in a toppy-downy truth arrived at by MEeCeing. I reject it, axiomatically. {}

    I believe in ‘truths for us, at the moment, for a given value of us and moment” ***

    And no, it’s not a freaking consensus, it’s pretty much the opposite. And it leads to action, unlike consensus.

    ‘The reasonable man adapts himself to the world; the unreasonable man persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.’ ****

    That’s your consensus.

    KM, pah. KM deals only with explicit knowledge and methods to elicit it. Knowledge is created in interaction, you dolts. There are more knowledges, Horatio, than you have dreamt. *****

    I’m advocating a verbal process, not a written one… That which is writ, is dead already. The moving finger, and all the other fingers, moves on… §

    Encode and Evoke {©moi, maintenant}, like Aboriginal mammas §§

    Robin Dunbar (Gossip, Grooming and the evolution of language) If the human cortex evolved to deal with the combinatorial explosion of grooming in primate groups as they reached their network computational limit (just how many hair-strokings can you do in a day, and still meet the imperatives of the 4Fs?)if, if if…

    So we have this cortex, utterly optimised to engage socially. and we don’t use it socially to tackle the problems wot it was developed for!

    So why the duck do we persist in applying great SOLO thinkers to wicked problems?

    Listen to Harrison Ford, I mean Owen.

    I need a lie down now, Ben, but if ya wanna, I can unpack my thinking on this for you. But you’ll need to access my thinking today or tomorrow, because I move on like a foraging band of crows…

    Gaah. It must be lovely being right all the time, as a McKinseydroid…

    “Indeed not so Certain” David Masson, The Caltraps of Time


    * ‘things like’ deliberately vague, as in thingification and plainPhrase. Its plinkish
    ** ditto
    *** The moment can be an afternoon, or a month or years, and like bread, it grows stale with age. The us can be your team, your family, the 3 amigos+ in yer local boozer or heaven forfend a 2 day meeting of a group of disabled activists to craft a response to a TU disabilty policy thingy [actual case story available on request)
    §§ Bruce chatwin, The Songlines


    1. given that i poured a condensed glimmer of my thinking over the last 40 years into my comment, i had rather hoped that it might begin a dialogue between us, Benjy.


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