Introduction to structuring

Problem-solving

July 27, 2022

Mastering a new skill can be daunting, particularly in high-stakes situations. 

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. 

Table of contents:

Coming Soon.

The importance of structures (with 3 examples)

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:  

  • Structuring into processes: When we use existing guidelines to solve a problem. A recipe is an excellent example of how we use processes in everyday life. When we follow or create a recipe, we use a structure, broken down into smaller steps that are easy to follow. For example, if we're cooking a pumpkin pie, we structure chronological step-by-step instructions to ensure the result is successful.
     
  • Structuring into timelines: When we use time to create a structure. An ideal example is an itinerary that relies on a detailed structure to ensure we see everything we want on holiday. It is even possible to divide a week's itinerary into hours and days, so activities are plotted on a timeline in detail
  • Structuring into categories: When we use organization to create a structure. For example, team leaders will use a calendar to structure their week into smaller activities like meetings and events. They may also customize these categories based on priorities and importance by color coding each activity.
     

⚡ 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. 

How to structure problems to enhance business communication

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. 

Image source


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:

  • First, he talked about digging smaller tunnels. Musk spoke authoritatively on the costs associated with tunneling in specific areas. As cars were smaller than a metro or subway system, the company could reduce construction costs by 75% by reducing the tunnel hole radius by 50%. 
  • Then, he talked about decreasing fixed costs. Tunneling is a specific task. 50% of the time is taken up by the tunnel digging machine, while the remaining 50% is spent reinforcing walls. The company planned to speed up the reinforcing process (as its tunnels were smaller), which would cut costs by roughly 50%
  • Finally, he talked about variable costs. Musk noted an opportunity to improve tunneling machine efficiency, cutting costs by two to five times alone. The project has smaller variable costs than a traditional tunneling project as the company planned to improve thermal efficiency. 

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?

Simple.

Musk can highlight the project's advantages by: 

  • Breaking down complex problems. He understands the causes and components associated with tunneling. He talks about potential roadblocks like area, time, speed and cost and talks about them optimistically.
  • Aligned approach. Because Musk understands the problem in such depth, he can align his team behind his vision of the tunnels using research and real solutions.
  • Seeing the problem from every angle. When core questions are structured well, it allows us to see every part of a problem, not just the issues we want to notice because of bias. Musk uses this strategy to prioritize the main parts of the problem, which helps him focus on specific solutions.

Breaking down the M.E.C.E principle

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.

Structure 1: Mutually exclusive and 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. 

Structure 2: Not mutually exclusive but collectively exhaustive

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.

Structure 3: Mutually exclusive but not collectively exhaustive

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. 

Structure 4: Neither mutually exclusive or collectively exhaustive

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: 

  1. Check for exclusiveness: Are there any items in more than one category? If the answer is yes, your structure isn't mutually exclusive.
  2. Check for exhaustiveness: Are there any items that don't fit into a category? If so, the structure isn't collectively exhaustive. 
  3. Don't lock into one structure too early. Most problems can be structured into many types of categories. To solve your problem successfully, try multiple structures and choose the best one for each situation.

Expert Corner: How Mohit Rawat builds communication structures

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:

  • Recognize priorities. "If something is a priority, it cannot be a long list. The definition of a priority is what is truly the most important issue."
  • Senior leadership needs to take charge. "What do you need them to finally act or decide on? You need to bring the core question to the top of their mind so you can tailor your message."
  • Adopt downstream communication. "You have to think about what's in it for your team. Why should they listen to you? Why should they follow you? You have a goal that you're trying to achieve, but having simplicity in your communication is key." 

Communication structures help leaders solve complex problems

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. 

Want to learn more about asking better questions? Check out Prezent's detailed article on Advanced Questioning here