One skill that a lot of leaders dread is learning how to structure and break down business problems. Complex problems are intimidating and overwhelming, but adding structure to your process can help.
In the face of a new task or project, adding processes, timelines or categories we already use in everyday life allows us to see a problem from every angle, get input from our teams and understand it so we can overcome it.
This piece will explain how using structures leads to better communication and successful problem-solving.
As humans, we use structures every day to organize our lives.
From grocery shopping to problem-solving, structure helps us organize and categorize events and items so we can manage them. The trick to structuring business problems is converting the implicit structuring of questions to a more explicit structuring.
Let's take a look at three real-life scenarios using structures:
⚡ Prezent Pro-Tip: We already structure problems using processes, timelines and categories daily. When a new problem pops up in your business, use structuring at the start to build a strong foundation so you can solve it more easily.
Nobel Prize-winning physicist Herbert Simon knew the value of structuring a problem. He believed solving a problem meant representing it so the solution was transparent.
In other words, representing or structuring a problem well makes it easier to solve. And If we go back to 2016, we can see this theory in action.
This was when Elon Musk announced a new (cleverly named) business called The Boring Company.
The idea behind the company was simple. It would build a network of 3D tunnels underground to reduce congestion in cities. Cars would move on electric skates inside the tunnel at 120 miles per hour. There was skepticism when the idea went public, as underground tunnels are costly to build.
The main question everyone was asking was: How would The Boring Company build tunnels cost-effectively?
In a 2017 interview, Chris Anderson asked Musk how he planned to cut the cost of creating the tunnels. And Musk's answer was a masterclass in structuring. Instead of giving a broad answer about construction costs, he broke the question down into three categories and outlined exactly how he would cut costs:
By structuring the problem and breaking it into separate parts, Musk created a mental map of the problem. This allowed him to expand on complex parts of the question to explain his plans on the project's area, time and speed.
Watch Musk break down the question here (3:45–5:20):
So, why structure the answer to the core question like this?
Musk can highlight the project's advantages by:
The Mutually Exclusive Collectively Exhaustive principle—known as M.E.C.E—is a strategy used to structure communication.
Here's an example of how M.E.C.E works. Take this simple shopping list:
You'd have difficulty remembering all nine items because they're uncategorized. Here's the same shopping list that's been structured using the M.E.C.E principle:
Each of the items is placed into a category, which makes them easier to remember, self-contained and they don't overlap. In other words, the categories don't contain parts of each other.
This is the backbone of the M.E.C.E principle: each structure contains all the information about a problem and no part of the problem space is missing. Using the shopping list example, let's look at how we can further break down the shopping list into four structures using M.E.C.E based on whether items are mutually exclusive and/or collectively exhaustive.
Here, the list is broken down into bakery, frozen section and fresh fruit structures:
It is mutually exclusive because the three categories bakery frozen section and fresh fruit don't have any item overlapping the three categories.
For example, frozen mango chunks fit into the frozen section, but not the fruit or bakery categories. This structure is exhaustive as all nine items fit into three categories—none are missing.
Next, let's turn the list into a structure that's mutually exclusive but not collectively exhaustive:
This structure isn't mutually exclusive because of the frozen mango—the item would fit into the fruit or frozen food categories. However, it's collectively exhaustive because all the shopping items can be included in the three categories.
It's possible to structure mutually exclusive categories using the M.E.C.E principle.
Here, the list is split into two categories—frozen section and fresh fruit.
This structure is mutually exclusive as the two categories (frozen section and fresh fruit) don't have item overlaps. However, it's not collectively exhaustive as three items (bagel, bread and muffin) don't fit into either category.
Finally, items can be structured even if they're not mutually exclusive or collectively exhaustive.
The frozen mango chunks do fit into two different categories, so this structure isn't collectively exhaustive. And as three items (bagel, bread and muffin) don't fit into any category, this structure isn't collectively exhaustive.
Use these three steps to correctly implement the M.E.C.E principle next time you and your team are trying to structure (and solve) a complex problem:
Mohit Rawat is the President and Chief Business Officer of Fusion Pharmaceuticals. He shared his wisdom with Prezent during an in-depth, honest chat about how he reduces communication so every conversation he has with his team is essential.
To truly get to the core of what another person cares about, Rawat believes you need to hear what matters to them. Understanding this allows leaders to see their team's challenges and adapt a communication style to influence them effectively.
Rawat says he uses a technique called a pipeline to do this. He asks the other person why an issue is important, which helps him get to the core questions and problems.
"Once you get to the core, it's simple. It's easier to unclutter your mind and start building from there," he says.
Rawat uses a three-point structure to create these discussions:
Not many problems faced by leaders are easy to solve.
The key to solving complex problems is getting to the root cause by asking core questions. Adding structures to this process helps break down complex issues into more manageable pieces.
Learning simple strategies, like the M.E.C.E principle, can become your secret weapon. This principle will enable you to fully understand your problem and solve it using a structured, repeatable approach.