MECE vs. simplicity


There are 2 ways of thinking, and I've slowly moved from one to the other over the past few years (although balance is probably the best end state).

The first way of thinking is MECE - mutually exclusive, completely exhaustive. It's coming up with frameworks, great taxonomies, ultimate (not proximal) causes and explanations. This is where my "theory of value, theory of romance, theory of leadership, etc." comes in. It's also, interestingly, the most academic.

The trouble with this way of thinking is that it's quite reductionist. I've learned to sense the bias in it, the ability to fool oneself, to become fragile or, at most, robust, but miss huge gaps in perspective and knowledge that end up blowing you out. There is too much that can't be known.

The other trouble, though, is the advantage of it. Namely, that people love this stuff. Obviously, academics thrive on their social theories, but they also make for fun conversations where you come off as thoughtful and smart, and they aren't always unhelpful because those conversations spur new ideas and thoughts.

Over time, I've moved towards another kind of thinking, that really just focuses on core ideas. Frameworks can be ignored because the world, instead of being a collection of frameworks (with, hopefully, minimal overlap), is actually just the manifestation and extension of core and powerful ideas. When a new idea enters the world, it takes control of people and resources and fights for its survival. It becomes important to have the important ideas, and heuristics and rules of thumb become more important then rigorous, all-encompassing analysis.

It's funny because the MECE outlook is for the Mckinseys and Stanfords of the world, but the idea perspective is for the VCs. I think I started thinking in terms of ideas before I entered the world of venture, but regardless, it fits where I am now.

But the two modes are only permeable in one direction: idea people love MECE conversations, because they stimulate thoughts and ideas. But MECE people rarely “get” the idea people, because it takes a baseline of context and creativity to immediately understand how impactful (or not) a new idea might be. This means that idea people enjoy being with both kinds of people, but MECE people don't.

An easy representation of these two kinds of thinking is found in two radically different kinds of books. Often just the title will give it away. "7 ways to X" is usually a MECE approach, but one-word titles are usually for books that have one idea as a generator (think "How to Win Friends and Influence People" vs "Antifragile").