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How should you pronounce the business acronym MECE? What does it mean?

Back to the pronunciation. The issue around how you pronounce the term goes more in-depth and can only be understood if you get to hear from the horse's mouth.

While McKinsey has, for a long time, let the world know that MECE is "me-see," Barbara Minto insists that the sounds should rhyme with “niece” and “Greece!” Since she invented the term, she is adamant that she should be allowed to determine how it is pronounced.

If you are using the MECE concept to work on your projects, you might never need to utter it aloud to anyone. However, the ability to stick to the MECE rule to properly segment problems and explicitly discuss this process will be a crucial element of management consulting interviews. Where you have to impress an interviewer, you want to pronounce your terms at least correctly!

Who is Barbara Minto & the genesis of MECE

Barbara Minto, one of the first eight women ever admitted to Harvard Business School, is well known in the business world. Well, at least if not for her Minto Pyramid Principle, then be the first female MBA professional at McKinsey.

Even with no undergraduate degree when she joined Harvard, Barbara turned out to be the best female hire ever for this top management consulting firm.

When editing reports done by her peers, she developed a structured approach to improving the quality of such documents.

As a top editor of strategy reports, McKinsey transferred her from the US to its London office in 1966 when miners were consistently on strikes. She got a lot of time to work on her research and case studies to develop methods to structure ideas.

She stayed in London, and time in McKinsey offices across Europe, Minto noticed that unstructured communication was a common problem, both in Europe and the US, and wasn’t limited to English speakers.

However, since this communication problem, according to her, was ruining good ideas, she sought to find a universal approach that would make the presentations stand out.

Minto’s Business Communication

But as good as she was, Minto never left McKinsey honourably. In 1973, in the wake of the Oil Crisis, there was a massive downturn in the management consultancy industry, vanishing with many jobs. One of the victims of McKinsey’s London office layoffs due to redundancy was Barbara Minto.

Minto remained in London and established her business of developing business communication methods, using the strategies she pioneered at McKinsey. Her goal was to create a coherent system for business communication.

She has since built a name for herself, and even returned to McKinsey as an external instructor, teaching her methods. And here methods are now a doctrine at McKinsey.

She doesn’t limit her services to corporates. She also helps individuals improve their communications through her courses. And other than her former employers, she also works for their rivals, effectively becoming a communication consultant to the consultants!

The Minto Pyramid Principle

You can’t talk of the MECE rule, without invoking the principles set “The Pyramid Principle,”  by Barbara Minto.

The Pyramid Principle is a “top down” approach to presenting information.

As she puts it, the pyramid is a tool that breaks down your thoughts and ideas. It takes all your ideas and helps you develop an idea and refine it until it comes out crystal clear and influences your decision.

So, how do you present information when using the Pyramid principle?

There’s a specific sequence. First, you need recommendations from an action or a summary of a report. Secondly, get the support arguments to the conclusion or the recommendations. Finally, breakdown to individual arguments and support each with the little facts or findings.

Here is a simple presentation of this sequence:

Diagram explaining the Pyramid Principle, which instructs on how to break down ideas in a MECE way

How to Building Your Pyramids Using the MECE Rule

There’s no Pyramid Principle without implementing the MECE rule.

Look at the pyramid this way: the peak is a summary of ideas underneath.

A single idea is a collation of individual inputs from those below. Thus, you can only derive it from a grouping if the smaller ideas in the grouping logically are the same and in logical order.”

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 together, they should exhaustively address a problem.

Segmenting the same population as example of  MECE Rule

Example: split up the UK population into groups of customers for a marketing exercise.

You may have lots of ideas on how to perform this task since there are several ways to group people. However, only an approach that conforms to the MECE definition can deliver groups that are:

  1. Collectively Exhaustive (CE)  - account for everyone in the population.
  2. Mutually Exclusive (ME) - one person can only belong to one group, to prevent replication.

Unless you meet these two conditions, you'll create dysfunctional groups, which might not be as accurate and as useful. And in a business context, your segmentation cannot help the organisation to maximise profits.

That then means we cannot classify the UK citizens based on the industries where they work for manufacturing and still have another category of the offices they hold. Such a method would leave out those who don’t work. Also, chances are we’ll have people in both groups, since office staff fit in both categories.

In this case, the MECE way would be grouping by age brackets as follows

  • Segment 1: 60 and over

  • Segment 2: 45-60 years old

  • Segment 3: 30-45 years old

  • Segment 4: 15-30 years old

  • Segment 5: 0- 15 years old

It is easier for a business to accurately use the above data for a marketing campaign. They would develop separate strategies to use for each group.

There are other equally good MECE breakdowns in this case. For example, you can divide the population by income bracket, education level, or gender.

/MiːSi/ or //Miːs// - which way?

As much as Minto developed the frameworks, her pronunciation of MECE doesn’t excite people as much as she would love to. So, shelve the idea of using her way of pronouncing it.

We read MECE as “Me See”, meaning it’s /MiːSi/.

As much as we respect Minto, the latter is the ubiquitous way to pronounce her methods.

But it is okay if you want to side with her on this, however, remember to stick to the standard way to pronounce it at a job interview. Just use what everyone else does.

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