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:

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