A Failure

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Looking around, I could see the uneasy and impatient expressions on people’s faces. Suddenly, a loud voice interrupted my presentation: “The scenarios sound like scary but implausible fictions. We should stop here!” This stunning moment occurred during a milestone meeting for one of my early projects at Monitor Group.

The project was meant to develop a set of plausible scenarios for evaluating the potential impacts of the melting Arctic ice-cap on Singapore’s status as a transshipment hub. As the leading analyst on the case, I was entrusted with responsibility for presenting findings to clients from different backgrounds. On the day before, I presented the exact same material to academic experts, and the scenarios were well received. However, when I then handled the presentation for business and political leaders, the port CEO forced a stop to my talk. As hundreds of hours of work suddenly evaporated, I felt a deep sense of disappointment in myself.

After talking to some clients as well as my manager, I recognized in retrospect that the choice of presentation materials and style was not right for the audience. The complex science and highly detailed and technical minutiae escaped the understanding of the businessmen. As such, given the stark alternate reality I proposed, and the fact that they did not understand how it might come to pass, they labeled me an alarmist. Moreover, I also realized that if I had understood business leaders’ concerns and secured their support through upfront communications and expectation setting, my presentation could have been much more convincing and the key messages would not have been obscured by confusion and panic.

I learned a lesson I will apply repeatedly in my career: it is important to recognize key stakeholders and then learn their motivations and struggles, especially when a project’s success depends on their support. It is equally crucial to adapt the format of any communication to its audience and address...
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