MECE Trees are awesome, but …

I’ve recently been coaching at a top 3 management consulting firm and find it extremely surprising that the leaders there have still not paid heed to the research, over the past decade or two, around complex adaptive systems. Partners, MDs, and other leaders are still oblivious to frameworks like Cynefin, don’t understand the implications of it on their work, and have done little to structure their organizations to respond to a CAS environment.

For example, available literature, guidelines, and presentations on problem solving and case analysis still recommend MECE (“ME-see”) trees. MECE trees, developed by Barbara Minto at McKinsey & Co. in the late 1960s, are well known in the consulting community and are widely used to decompose structured problem statements and to write and present ideas clearly.

The MECE tree based problem solving approach is suited for and works well in the ordered (Clear and Complicated) domains but shouldn’t be the preferred choice in the Complex and Chaos domains and definitely not in the Confused domain. When problems and solutions aren’t obvious (due to their emergent nature) and where cause-and-effect relationships are either perceptible only in hindsight or not at all, other techniques must be brought to bear. 

It’s going to be interesting teaching these management consultants to not limit themselves to tools that they may be very familiar with but to explore other options that may be better suited for the dynamic and emergent space they’ll be playing in.

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