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Barbara Minto: “MECE: I invented it, so I get to say how to pronounce it”
May 03, 2018


Barbara Minto was with the Firm for only 10 years, but the mark she left is permanent.

The first female MBA professional hire our Firm ever made, Barbara is best known for the Minto Pyramid Principle, her immortal framework for writing and presenting ideas. First published in book form more than 40 years ago, its lessons are still taught at Embark. The countless courses Barbara has taught on the subject have made it, for many, practically synonymous with structure.

“The pyramid is a tool to help you find out what you think,” she says. “The great value of the technique is that it forces you to pull out of your head information that you weren’t aware was there, and then helps you to develop and shape it until the thinking is crystal clear. Until you do that, you can’t make good decisions on slides or video.”

Barbara was with the Firm from 1963 to 1973, first in Cleveland, then in London. Among her vivid memories is the U.K. miners' strike of 1972, when energy shortages across London forced the repeated early closure of the office in Jermyn Street. Barbara and her colleagues found refuge nearby in a warm pub.

Over drinks at a place called The Feathers, the group talked through absurd business scenarios, crafting theoretical solutions. The goal was to test problem-solving approaches and develop useful new ways of seeing things.

“It was in fact a golden time to be at McKinsey, an exciting time to be in consulting, because there was a lot of thinking about structure,” says Barbara. “We were inventing all the major analytical frameworks still in use today, and writing manuals about them.”

Editing the reports that were constantly crossing her desk at the time, Barbara had noticed she always seemed to be reorganizing ideas into a pyramid shape.


 
Look familiar? Says Barbara, “The pyramid is a tool to help you find out what you think.”

“I saw it meant there were only three logical rules to obey,” she says. “The point above has to be a summary of those below, because it is derived from them. You can’t derive an idea from a grouping unless the ideas in the grouping are logically the same, and in logical order.”

The concept required the groups of ideas to be MECE—divided pieces that were mutually exclusive of each other and collectively exhaustive in terms of the whole. The term is now in daily use at the Firm today. We usually say it “Mee-cee”, but Barbara pronounces it with one syllable, meece, rhyming with "niece" or "Greece."

“I invented it, so I get to say it how to pronounce it,” she says.

But she immediately amends her claim.

“Well, it wasn’t really I, actually, it was Aristotle,” she says, “but I was the first one to abbreviate it and apply it to analyzing groups of ideas.”

The Firm years

In 1963, Barbara graduated from Harvard Business School, which had only just begun granting MBA degrees to women. Her classmates had not always been welcoming.

“They could be really unpleasant,” Barbara recalls. “They said things like ‘You’re taking a space a man could have!’”

The Firm’s recruiters let it be known they wanted a female MBA for the new office being opened in Cleveland. Barbara applied for the job and got it, and although she didn’t immediately thrive as a number-crunching consultant, she had writing skills and soon started building on them.

John Tomb, the manager of the new Cleveland office, described in a 1986 oral history how Barbara began taking over the editing of reports.

“[She] was so successful,” he said, “that eventually I guess every office in the Firm used her on a part-time basis to try to improve the report-writing ability of Associates, which often wasn’t exactly what it should have been for graduates of places like Harvard Business School.”

In 1966, Barbara moved to London. On trips to Firm offices in Paris and Düsseldorf, she encountered the same writing problems she had seen in the U.S. and U.K.—a frequent jumbling of information, presented in a way that mixed findings and conclusions, with neither of them leading in a clear way to recommendations.

“The problem was the thinking, not the language,” she says. “People were starting to write without working out their thinking in advance. But how does one go about figuring out one’s thinking in advance?”

She went to the library to find books on the structure of thought. She studied the works of Jean Piaget and Levi Strauss. She read the Bourbaki mathematicians, Talcott Parsons, Mortimer Adler, and Jacob Bronowski.

“And I had the great good fortune to be in the London office with colleagues whose brains had been trained at Oxford and Cambridge, and who also had questions on structure,” she says.

Barbara turned her pyramid idea into a course that she began teaching at Firm offices around the world. Her first manual, “Skillful Writing through Structured Thinking,” was soon coveted by colleagues in every office who adopted its teachings and taught them to newcomers.

The Minto Pyramid Principle

Then came the 1973 Oil Crisis, leaving in its wake a troubling economic situation in the U.K. and a major force reduction in the London office. Barbara was among those to leave. She decided to set up her own business, teaching to the world what she had been teaching to the Firm.

Her business grew by word of mouth. In the 1980s and 1990s, she sometimes taught as many as four courses a month. Scores of organizations paid to host her course for employees. Among them were Accenture, Bain, and every other major consulting firm.
 
Over time she upgraded and polished her original thinking, and in 1985 published The Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing and Thinking. In 1987, the British publisher Pearson purchased and
mass-produced it. This is the version most often sold online, but it’s not the authoritative edition. While Pearson had rights to the 1987 version, it did not secure rights to the 1996 revamp that Barbara executed on her own: "The Minto Pyramid Principle: Logic in Writing, Thinking and Problem Solving." That handsome volume has 12 chapters, three appendices, and an entire section devoted to problem solving. A sturdy copy goes to every participant in her three-day course.



Barbara continues to teach worldwide, though she claims she is slowing down. In the last year she has taught the Minto Pyramid Principle in Singapore, Dubai, Oslo, and Munich, as well as Boston, Chicago, and San Francisco. Each course is limited to 10-14 people, each of whom gets a book and a thorough analysis of his or her current approach to writing.

“When I prepare to teach a course, I ask each participant to send me a lengthy piece of writing in advance,” she says. “I draw pictures of their structures, develop new structures, and use these as the examples in the course. It makes it all come alive for them. At the end of the course, I tutor each person individually, taking them through the pyramid building process, to make sure it takes.”

Tens of thousands of people have learned from Barbara Minto. She is introduced to them as a pioneer of McKinsey and a purveyor of a highly accessible, adaptable writing technique. In May, she will attend her 55th HBS reunion in Cambridge, where she’ll be reunited with the surviving members of that historic class.

“The school would very likely not have let me in had I applied these days,” she says. “Clearly what worked for me was that I found a problem and cared enough about it, and worked hard enough at it, to solve it. But not everyone is that lucky.”



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