What conservation leaders must get to know for themselves

Leadership is a broad spectrum skill set. It related to personal, interpersonal, intellectual, perceptive and learning capabilities.

If it is possible to bil it down to a few topic areas, then the best and broadest categores are those suggested by Deming in his System of Profound Knowledge.

As a leader you need to know:

1. How people ‘tick’ – basics of psychology

What is motivation? How does a leader sap mtivation out of people? What can be changed to enable people to perorm at their best? How can wwe get pwopel to collaborate and share? How can we help people to improve the work that we do?

2. How systems work – organisations, ecosystems, social systems

What is a system? WHat factors affect how a system works? How do we measure performance? What are the effects of changes on a system?

3. How data over time (longitudinal) tells us how a system is working

What is ‘good’ performance, what is ‘bad’ performance? What is predicatble? How do we know if things are going wrong? What is risky performance? What is chance or a ‘one-off’?

4. How different levels of knowledge can – and should – be used

Can we oly work with facts? Are facts real facts or something else? How do we make uncertain information into facts, or at least, useful infomation?


Black, S. A., & Copsey, J. A. (2014). Does Deming’s “System of Profound Knowledge” Apply to Leaders of Biodiversity Conservation?. Open Journal of Leadership2014.

Knowledge and Conservation Leadership

Simon Black – 

Knowledge is one of the least understood areas of conservation management interventions. As scientists we are obsessed with facts and knowledge. We discuss knowledge assuming it is a black and white issue; science provides the facts, the rest is hogwash.

Of course, knowledge is actually subjective rather than objective. The adage that we know ‘how many badgers are in the woods’ as a concrete fact ignores the fluidity of a badger population. Births, deaths, migrations. What we knew yesterday may be completely inaccurate today.

Similarly, people’s belief in something can have a huge impact on concrete objective behaviour, however ‘irrational’ that behaviour may be perceived by the ‘objective’ scientist. Cultural traditions, taboos and religious beliefs are examples of these contradictions.

This is important when we consider project design and interventions.

I have worked on some projects where reliance on subjective memories, observations and opinions is critical. Some species are so cryptic, or their range s so far-reaching and remote that scientific decision making is reliant on the views of local people.

As a leader one option in the knowledge management toolbox should be kept in consideration: ‘With good data management and systematic project design, the accumulation of anecdotes becomes data of scientific value.’

Knowledge runs on a continuum form belief, through to concrete scientific fact. In conservation we often operate at the uncertain end of the spectrum.

This has implications in how we lead. For example if we have a failure or a mistake is made, do we consider whether it gives us knowledge to help future improvement? In conservation this is often swept under the carpet. In other industries, such as aerospace, construction, motor vehicle production, nuclear power generation and the military, mistakes and failure are seen as crucial to future improvement and avoidance of future failure.

In healthcare and social change, interventions based on difficult to define social constructs, social norms and beliefs are fundamental.

In conservation we need to embrace an understanding of the value of all realms of knowledge and through study understand the improvement of natural systems all the more effectively.


Black S.A. (2019) Assessing Presence, Decline and Extinction for the Conservation of Difficult-to-Observe Species in F Angelici and l. Rossi (eds) Problematic Wildlife Volume II. In press

Black S.A. and Copsey J.A. (2014) Does Deming’s ‘System of Profound Knowledge’ Apply to Leaders of Biodiversity Conservation? Open Journal of Leadership 3(2) 53-65. DOI: 10.4236/ojl.2014.32006

Catalano, A. S., Redford, K., Margoluis, R., & Knight, A. T. (2018). Black swans, cognition, and the power of learning from failure. Conservation biology32(3), 584-596.


The Art of Asking Questions

Simon Black – 

An important aspect of leadership is the ability to seek out god knowledge by asking the right questions at the right time. This is so important that we could suggest that “Good leadership is about asking the right questions” (Black, Groombridge & Jones 2011)

The problem with asking questions is that people can view questioning in different ways. Some people might consider your questions to be  a threat or a way of apportioning blame if things have gone wrong. For others, questions may be viewed as an indicator of your interest in their work. On other occasions questioning may seem like a test of knowledge for the person you are approaching. In the best situation people will view your questions as your attempt to offer help and to collaborate and support their work.

As a leader, your use of questions might relate to one or more of these purposes. The issue is, how can we best use questions to build helpful knowledge?

Let’s first get rid of some misconceptions. The following types of questions are generally inappropriate and are rarely helpful to anyone, including you. To put it bluntly, these are the sort of questions that you should AVOID:

  • Asking why someone has messed up
  • Asking why people ‘don’t know’
  • Asking something which is focused on a person’s appearance
  • Asking something personal which is none of your business
  • Asking something in an accusatory or derogatory manner
  • Asking questions to make you look clever or to put people down

Instead, better questioning starts with being clear on the point of your questions. A few useful purposes for effective questioning include:

  • Investigating a problem (e.g. when some sort of failure occurs)
  • Testing people’s understanding (e.g. of a technique or method)
  • Clarifying if people have understood what you said 
  • Checking a person’s well-being (if they do not seem their usual self)
  • Asking how to do and activity better (to get better performance )
  • Asking what could prevent problems reoccurring (after a mistake)

As a conservation leader, the trick to asking good questions is this:


In work, most problems and unknowns are NOT due to people being neglectful or incompetent, but are actually down to the system of work (namely, rules and obligations, procedures, the environment, complex social and natural systems) that people work within. In conservation the ‘system’ often includes complex or impenetrable habitats, variable climates, human social systems, socio-economic issues, multiple and changeable impacts of threats and so on.

It is no wonder therefore, that we should focus on the problems of the system first, before bashing our co-workers over the head in judgement! As American Management ‘guru’ Ed Deming would say: 95% of problems are due to the system, only 5% due to people being at fault (Deming, 1982).

This awareness should shape the way we frame our questions. It is more effective to phrase issues in your questions around the work, not the person. Here are a few examples:

If we have a problem with a method or technology, ask:
Why do we think this is not working?
(instead of “Why can’t you get it to work?”)

If we don’t know enough about a particular species, consider:
What do we know already?” and “What do we need to find out?

If something unexpected happens, ask:
Why do we think this occurred?
(rather than “Why they hell did that happen?”)

If we uncover a difficult problem, ask:
What would help us to solve this problem?
(rather than “Why did you let this happen?”)

If we encounter a difficult situation or conflict ask:
What are their needs?
(rather than “Did you ask them what they wanted?”)

If the team are struggling, consider asking:
How can I help?
(rather than “Why don’t you lot grow up?”)

These suggestions are not mere semantics. The effectiveness of our behaviour starts with our personal values, beliefs and attitudes. If we believe most problems are caused by people it will show in our behaviours and the way we ask questions, and we will get a negative response from colleagues. They are more likely to tell us what they think we want to hear, rather than real underlying issues.

If we really want to seek knowledge and understand what is going on, we need to ask the right questions and that way we have a greater chance of getting a better response.


Black S. A., Groombridge J.J. and Jones C. (2011) Leadership and conservation effectiveness: finding a better way to lead, Conservation Letters 4 (5): 329-339. DOI: 10.1111/j.1755-263X.2011.00184.x

Deming, W. E. (1982) Out of the Crisis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Advanced Engineering Study, Cambridge,
Mass, USA.

Leading conservation change – picking the right point of intervention

I have provided input to a number of conservation programmes which are dealing with the pressures of human-wildlife conflict, particularly where large predators pose a threat to livestock and people.

Some of these  animals are a mortal threat, such as tigers in the Sundarbans. In other locations such as the Himalayas or East Africa,  local villagers, regard leopards, hyenas or wolves as pests, because of their tendency to prey on livestock. As a result, villagers or livestock herders in these locations may resort to retaliatory killings of these animals.

An innovative Himalayan Homestays ecotourism programme in the Ladakh region of Northwest India, suggests that educating communities on the ecological importance of snow leopards to instill greater value for this keystone species. The scheme is based around provision to locals of an opportunity to earn an additional source of income by hosting nature tourists. Locals were trained in housekeeping while youth acquired skills as guides to lead nature tours.

“People who used to kill snow leopards in revenge, before our intervention, are today trying to attract the cat to their villages,” says Tsewang Namgail, scientist and director of the Snow Leopard Conservancy-India Trust and co-author of the study. “This was unthinkable 20 years ago when people wanted the snow leopard as away from them as possible.”

We are now understanding better that people’s attitudes and, perhaps even more importantly, their behaviour towards snow leopards is driven by a complex of factors. importantly, some behaviour controls, like economic interests, may over-ride intentions. These controls will be amplified or reduced in effect by the social norms of the community. If people have positive social norms it will assist, but not eliminate confounding effects. At the same time, education also will not be able to permanently shift behaviour, other factors must also align.

Adapted from Vannelli et al (2019) – following the Theory of Change (Ajzen, 1991)

“Himalayan Homestays, and ecotourism, in general, should provide economic value, but also ideally foster value, beyond economic, for the species itself, if that positive relationship is to persist through fluctuations in the tourism industry,” explained Kate Vannelli, lead author of the study, which was her Master’s dissertation at the University of Kent.

Whilst incentives may appear to be the drivers of people’s changes in attitudes, it is not quite so simple. This has implications for leaders. We need to design social and behavioural  interventions so that they deliver the desired behavioural outcome (not just percieved attitudinal changes). Second we actually need to be better at designing interventions which reshape human behaviour in natural landscapes, such as making livestock less attractive to predators in the first place. In the latter case there is new interesting work using foxlights in the Himalayas to deter predators from entering villages. Nevertheless other initiatives to ensure suitably abundant natural prey also needs consideration.


Jain, N. (2019) In Ladakh, community-based ecotourism is helping promote positive perceptions of the snow leopard. Firstpost, 27 march 2019. https://www.firstpost.com/india/in-ladakh-community-based-ecotourism-is-helping-promote-positive-perceptions-of-the-snow-leopard-6253391.html

Vannelli, K. Hampton, M.P. Namgail, T. & Black, S. A. (2019). Community participation in ecotourism and its effect on local perceptions of snow leopard (Panthera uncia) conservation, Human Dimensions of Wildlife, DOI: 10.1080/10871209.2019.1563929

The Conservation Leadership Choice – a Future For Nature and For Ourselves

Simon Black – 

The Earth faces a crisis of environmental degradation and climate change: Carbon emissions, population growth and demand for energy, infrastructure, products and food.

We are a wasteful and self-obsessed species dominating a finite planet. The decline of ecosystems appears inevitable and unstoppable. Unlike us other species in our complex web of life do not have a spokesperson for their interests, leaving them vulnerable to exploitation for our human sake.

I often emphasise to conservation professionals that as professionals they must focus their work on “what matters to species and ecosystems”.

We are part of the ecosystems which we inhabit.

If we destroy natural resources, we destroy ourselves. This is illogical and immoral both in its effect on the species around us and on future human generations. Our challenge is to understand how we can co-exist with nature by addressing two drivers of change.

  • First, we need the positive efforts of the few people who have necessary technical skills to transform wild ecosystems.
  • Second, we need to divert the negative impact of the millions of us human consumers (who create the problem in the first place) and reverse our psychological separation from the natural world.
Simon Black image
Snapshots in time: (a) Round Island (1960), 22.5 km off the north coast of Mauritius, prior to the removal of European rabbits Oryctolagus cuniculus and goats Capra aegagrus and multispecies restoration efforts. Note limited vegetation and evidence of extreme soil erosion. (b) A similar spot on Round Island (2014). Note the recovery of more diverse plant life, which now provides important habitats for native seabirds and endemic reptiles, including Telfair’s skink Leiolopisma telfairii, once widespread across Mauritius and now restricted to three offshore islands

Our urban populations need to re-engage with nature. In the past, cities were nature-free, with wildlife limited to cultivated parks, sports fields and private back yards. The most interesting places in cities for wildlife included waste ground, refuse tips, abandoned waterways and grave yards; urban wildlife by default. New thinking is required to consciously make a place for wildlife in our cities and to shape people’s expectations of nature in the human world.

We all have a part to play – how we live, what we want, where we live. Many of us, especially in the richer and developing nations, should think less about what we want and instead pursue what we need; clean water, sustainable food sources, clean air, a healthy landscape, security. We also need to appreciate that people living on the fringes of wild landscapes have the same needs, whether urban, agricultural, pastoral, subsistence or nomadic. As humans we must coexist with the landscape and the mix of species within it.

I am confident that replanted forests will survive in the high mountains of the Hawaiian Islands as a home for their unique endemic bird species. Wild boar, deer, pine martens and red squirrels will frequent the woodlands of southern England and feature in the conversations of people in the local pub. Sea turtles will return to nest on previously abandoned, human-cluttered beaches, delighting local people on Indian ocean islands like Reunion and Mauritius. New woodlands, walnut groves and fruit tree plantations will be established in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco. Old methods of shepherding will continue to emerge in France, Germany, Denmark and the Netherlands in response to the previously unthinkable, but manageable presence of wolves.

I am confident that if we share these successes and inspire our neighbours, the past 40 years of practical conservation effort and learning across the globe will not be squandered. Our agricultural economy can adapt. Our consumer behaviour can shift enough to reduce production pressure, transport and waste. Our ingenuity will devise technologies which will reduce the impact and drivers of climate change.

We have a future alongside nature, retaining both the wild places and the commonly encountered species that have inspired humanity throughout our existence. It is an act of leadership to make efforts which will have a real impact on retaining and restoring nature’s place on the planet.


Drawn from a previous article:

Black S.A. (2019) Choosing a Future for Nature and for Ourselves. Fifteen Eighty Four: Academic Perspectives from Cambridge University Press http://www.cambridgeblog.org/2019/04/species-conservation-2/

Vanguard method

I am often asked about the work of John Seddon whom I refer to in a number of articles. He is a mainstream management thinker, in the sense that he works with mainstream businesses in commerce, services and public service.

He is very interested in intervention theory and method, how to change an organisation and enable it to be changed and more effective. His interests are Psychology and Systems Thinking. He has learned over his professional lifetime that you have to change the system to change people’s behaviour, you do not work on the people or try to drive a ‘culture change’. He has worked in Europe and Africa. He is humble enough to admit that much of what he was taught to tell people in the past was ineffective and unhelpful. These are important

This is a short video which gives you an insight into his work. You can also pick out various books that John has written over the past 25 years. My own learning has run across the same period. I remember speaking to John after a conference presentation that I made during my own PhD studies in the early 1990s. Whilst John talks about big businesses and the initiatives seen in corporate life, which may be unfamiliar to most of us in the world of conservation, he does start to unpick flaws in conventional management thinking. These are all important lessons for conservation leaders.

While you may not want to read the detail in John’s own books, the ideas of systems thinking are being explained in a growing number of articles in the conservation literature.


Black S.A. and Copsey J.A. (2014) Purpose, processes, knowledge and dignity are missing links in interdisciplinary projects. Conservation Biology 28 (5): 1139-1141 DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12344

Black S. A., Groombridge J.J. and Jones C. (2013) Using better management thinking to improve conservation effectiveness, ISRN Biodiversity. Volume 2013, Article ID 784701. http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2013/784701.

Black S.A. and Leslie S.C. (2018) Understanding impact of mitigation action through waterway control systems on manatee deaths in Florida. Int j Avian & Wildlife Biology 3 (5): 386-390.

Black S.A. and Copsey J.A. (2014) Does Deming’s ‘System of Profound Knowledge’ Apply to Leaders of Biodiversity Conservation? Open Journal of Leadership 3(2) 53-65. DOI: 10.4236/ojl.2014.32006

Black S. A., Groombridge J.J. and Jones C. (2011) Leadership and conservation effectiveness: finding a better way to lead, Conservation Letters 4 (5): 329-339. DOI: 10.1111/j.1755-263X.2011.00184.x


Questioning conservation project design

Simon Black – 

Can we teach ourselves new ways of designing, testing and improving conservation work?

We rarely evaluate the success of project design by looking back at the plans – has it done what was planned? If you think about it, this is because what is important in a conservation intervention is whether conservation has actually been achieved – has it made a difference to species and ecosystems of concern?

Often programmes do not measure the things that matter (to species and ecosystems. Intead the focus is on activities and outcomes. These may have value in managing the project (or not) but do they help us to do conservation better?

John Seddon says “Change should start with study” He also suggests that the convention that you cannot implement change without projects, milestones and ‘deliverables’ are unhelpful. He says these have little value. Essentially systems thinking rejects all of these approaches. Does this have implications for conservation, where we have an addiction for projects and plans?

For Seddon the ONLY PLAN, is to do is go out, study and get knowledge. When you get knowledge you can change things. You follow this by predicting, but you never know by how much, but it is often better than you would ever have predicted. You also design interventions which have counter-intuitive points of intervention. We start to see this in social change programmes in conservation.

You need to avoid assumptions. You need to find out what is happening, the demands, the value of things, what matters.

A conservation programme design should follow this model. Carl Jones, winner of the Indianapolis Prize in 2016 has always followed his model, by seeking what matters to a species and then adapting approach season by season, week by week, year by year. A two or three year plan has little meaning, little predictability with endangered species. Carl has achieved unequalled success in species conservation and recovery.



Black S.A. (2014) Can we engineer an exponential growth in conservation impact? Solitaire 25: 3-5. Durrell Conservation Academy, Jersey.  ISSN 2053-1087. http://www.durrell.org/network/resources/solitaire/

Copsey, J.A., Black, S.A., Groombridge, J.J. and Jones C.G. (2018). Species Conservation: Lessons from Islands. Ecology, Biodiversity and Conservation Series. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.



Towards an understanding of conservation impact

Simon Black – 

Monitoring and evaluation is a common headache for conservation leaders. how do they evaluate the impact of a programme, intervention, or project? One of the big problems is that conservation professionals cannot attribute ’cause and effect’ to their interventions, so assume that they cannot suggest or claim that improvements have been ’caused’ by their intervention.

This false modesty is a problem, because it encourage even more spurious claims in its place – like recovery of species on a global scale, or a discussion of increased population counts when other factors may be involved. Few can claim (although some can truly claim with certainty)  that without intervention an extinction would have occurred.

We end up in a spiral of despair – will anything we do make a difference?

A new approach to leadership is required. This includes seeking ways of understanding the impact of conservation work on the systems of concern. this means understanding the status of the species and ecosystems involved. That understanding will never be complete – there will be many gaps and unknowns.

For example, the status of a species will not be known merely from its population size. There are many demographic, genetic, health and range-related factors well as an understanding of threats. However often there is no such data available nor the resources to measure and monitor these factors. In some instances we might not even know the baseline or historic situation for the species or ecosystem.

To improve our understanding  in these situations the first thing that needs to be done is to start looking at the available data over time. Instead of a snapshot look at the dynamics of the data as a surrogate measure of the status of the species.

In this cas

In this case a population of birds remains stable (Pungaliya et al 2018)

e a bird population has declined in size, but has become more stable  and less prone to fluctuations in size (Pungaliya and Black 2017).


If we look at a threat, such as deaths of manatees in human-built lock and canal systems, we can start to see if the situation is improving, or not. In this case, new control systems on lock has reduced the number of deaths (Black and Leslie 2018)

Statistically derived limits (defined by the data itself and NOT an ‘expert view’) enable us to see whether actual changes can (i) be identified and (ii) be attributed to any actions taken in terms of conservation effort.

We can start to consider management conservation for real improvements.

Further reading:

Black SA and Leslie SC (2018) Understanding impacts of mitigation in waterway control systems on manatee deaths in Florida. Int J Avian & Wildlife Biol 3 (5), 386‒390.  https://medcraveonline.com/IJAWB/IJAWB-03-00124.pdf

Pungaliya AV, Leslie SC, Black SA. (2018) Why stable populations of conserved bird species may still be considered vulnerable: the nihoa finch (telespiza ultima) as a case study. Int J Avian & Wildlife Biol. 2018;3(1):41‒43.  https://medcraveonline.com/IJAWB/IJAWB-03-00050

Pungaliya AV, Black SA. (2017) Insights into the recovery if the palila (Loxioides bailleui) on hawaii through use of systems behavior charts. Int J Avian & Wildlife Biol. 2017;2(1):4‒5. https://medcraveonline.com/IJAWB/IJAWB-02-00007

Developing more impactful conservation

Simon Black – 

Does conservation have the capacity to learn new ways of designing, testing and improving its interventions and impact? Good disciplines of management can be learned from other sectors, but still need to be applied, whether in the field, in zoos, and in collaborations with scientific institutions, governments and communities. The conservation sector is blessed with a motivated workforce – people who are committed to the recovery and survival of species and ecosystems and we need to make better use of their motivations.

Impact will not be amplified just through our best efforts which, whilst worthy, will essentially involve pushing water uphill (Deming, 1994). Rather we need to ‘work smarter’ by finding a better way to protect, recover and restore. This is not a far-fetched expectation, shown by examples of dramatic turnarounds with species like the Mauritius Kestrel and Echo Parakeet. It is a question of learning.

Conservation needs to apply new methods of problem identification, decision making, planning, monitoring and review, even in situations where we already have a sound understanding of conservation science of the species? I am always surprised by the frequency of projects that, despite available expertise and resource, are hampered either by people rigidly sticking to outdated plans of action, or by being allowed to drift off course due to the pursuit of ill-conceived goals. These are symptoms of a hesitant or uninformed management approach. Science cannot provide the answers to these problems (Clark and Reading, 1994).

Conservation practitioners also need to learn how to grapple with scientific uncertainty, building arguments for the recovery of species in situations of scant information. Decisions of critical importance (such as how to save the last few individuals) can rely on little more than hunches, best guesses or deep assumptions; an approach which flies in the face of scientific expectations for decision-making based on hard evidence (Game et al., 2013). A vast proportion of thorny conservation problems are rooted in issues around people (either the ones generating the threat or the ones implementing the action) rather than biology. In the face of these demands only now are we beginning to realise that the old ways of managing conservation can be radically improved through skills which enhance thought, courage and emotional insight alongside better collaboration and creativity (Black and Copsey, 2014).

Aside from practitioners needing to acquire management skills, there is a second side to this; the humility to lead effectively. A conservation professional that is prepared to admit “I don’t know” is ready to pursue the right knowledge. The project manager who is prepared to admit “it is not working” will be ready to experiment with new solutions. The leader who is prepared to ask “what can we learn?” when someone has made a mistake will enable even the most experienced team to gain new insights into their work. This is a new horizon for many conservation professionals and it is not on the curriculum of a biological sciences degree. How much are we, as conservation managers, prepared to change the way we think?

Fortunately we can call on nearly 100 years of sound management theory and practice, tested and validated through scientific study of psychology, statistics, experimental design, human behaviour and organisational theory. Good conservation management practice; working with species, people, resources, logistics, problems and policies requires a both a disciplined and passionate approach – an appreciation of the importance of long-term vision of what we need to achieve, alongside an understanding of the practical realities required to set meaningful short-term goals (Black, Groombridge & Jones, 2013).

Many aspects of this ‘better way’ of managing (Deming 1994) are reflected the basics of effective conservation; knowing the species (morphology, behaviour, ecology nutrition, reproduction and its natural history) and understanding the threats, followed by a pursuit of ever-improving knowledge (husbandry, enclosure requirements, health management), usually alongside practical interventions (intensive management, captive breeding, community engagement). Often the tangible gains in recovering species are made through incremental improvements in knowledge and these changes start with anecdotal evidence of what works and what doesn’t. Over time, with good data management and systematic project design (data monitoring, planning and method development) the accumulation of anecdotes becomes data of scientific value. Scientific understanding thereafter enables wider questions to be explored and better understanding of species, communities and whole ecosystem recovery. There are many examples where a blossoming of scientific knowledge has run in parallel with concrete progress on the ground (Young et al., 2014).

It is an exciting time to be a conservation professional and an important time for zoos and field projects to adapt, learn and accelerate improvement: a better way for conserving species and ecosystems.


Black S.A. (2014) Can we engineer an exponential growth in conservation impact? Solitaire 25: 3-5. Durrell Conservation Academy, Jersey.  ISSN 2053-1087. http://www.durrell.org/network/resources/solitaire/

Black S.A. and Copsey, J.A. (2014) Purpose, Process, Knowledge, and Dignity in Interdisciplinary Projects. Conservation Biology, 28 (5): 1139-1141.

Black, S. A., Groombridge, J. J. and Jones C. G. (2013) Using better management thinking to improve conservation effectiveness. ISRN Biodiversity http://dx.doi.org/10.1155/2013/784701.

Clark, T.W., Reading R.P. (1994) A professional perspective: improving problem solving, communication and effectiveness. p351–369 in T.W. Clark, R.P. Reading, A.L Clarke, eds. Endangered species recovery: finding the lessons, improving the process. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Deming,W. E. 1994. The new economics for industry, government, education. 2nd edition. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Center for Advanced Engineering Study, Cambridge.

Game, E.T., Meijaard, E., Sheil, D., McDonald-Madden, E. (2013). Conservation in a wicked complex world; challenges and solutions. Conservation Letters 7 (3): 271-277

Young, R.P., Hudson, M.A., Terry, A.M.R., Jones, C.G., Lewis, R.E., Tatayah, V., Zuel, N., Butchart, S.H.M. (2014) Accounting for conservation: Using the IUCN Red List Index to evaluate the impact of a conservation organization. Biological Conservation 180:84-96





Unpacking the processes of effective conservation effort: Demand-Value-Flow

Simon Black – 

The identification, definition and management of key processes is an important element in understanding the value of the conservation interventions. however, most conservation leaders rarely even identify their core processes, let alone manage them for improvement. This shortfall has been repeatedly observed in organisational research in conservation (Black and Copsey 2014; Black, Meredith et al, 2011; Moore et al, 2018). It is more usual for work to be defined in strategic plans (often detailing activities to the fine details) and managed through work plans (including schedules and milestones). Success is often erroneously debated in terms of ‘activities completed’, objectives achieved’, ‘outputs’, or ‘outcomes’ and reported as such in formal reports and scientific papers alike, in the hope this provides some form of management wisdom. It barely provides a partial picture. Unfortunately these measures rarely reflect the fundamental nature of conservation, namely that it involves on-going and continuing efforts and outcomes.

On-going activities need an understanding a knowledge of process.

In process terms there is no difference between an ‘output’ and an ‘outcome’ – they just relate to sub processes and large (or further extended) processes. The boundary of the process defines the level of measurement. A poorly defined boundary could derive an effective, but futile process which pumps out good results but has no sustainable effect on its ecosystem of concern, such as a captive release programme which puts animals into a degraded habitat where animals only succumb to extant threats. Graham Caughley saw this as a major weakness in conservation in the 1990s, but the lessons are still not fully understood.

The lack of process definition was a classic problem observed in the early years of the Black Footed ferret rescue programme (Black and Groombridge, 2011). A productive captive breeding programme was undone by releases which saw most animals die in a short time in the wild. To remedy this a wider process of reintroduction needed to be defined, which incorporated pre-release conditioning of the animals (e.g. aversion to humans and domestic animals), vaccination of ferret kits, vaccination of prey in the wild locations, as well as careful selection of release locations themselves. only when the total process was defined and measured for improvement did reintroductions start to succeed and predictably achieve the right results.

Flow is another key concept in process management – getting things in the right order. The Po’ouli succumbed to extinction as milestones for achievement were followed which did not meet the perilous status of the bird in the wild. Whilst huge (and commendable) effort was made to construct fenced habitat, free from invasive species, sadly the bird population itself fell into decline. There was no knowledge or effort or success  in even considering breeding the birds, neglected until only three aged individuals remained (Black and Groombridge, 2011).

Of course, to measure process performance (as opposed to project outcomes) you need an understanding of performance over time. this requires new measures and analyses of longitudinal data – Systems Behaviour. Only understand variation in process performance can give the helpful feedback insights needed to accelerate improvement in a timely and meaningful manner (Seddon 2003; Black et al, 2013). Anything other would be ‘trial and error’.

Finally a conservation manager must define a process by the needs of the species and ecosystems of concern. Form a practical point of view this is likely to be driven by an understanding of threats – the ‘demands’ placed on the species. the process should then deliver something of value that addresses those threats. Anything less than value is just us, as humans, keeping ourselves busy. Being busy might make us feel better, but it is unlikely to ever help to conserve species and ecosystems.


Black S. A. and Groombridge J.J. (2010) Use of a Business Excellence Model to Improve Conservation programs, Conservation Biology, 24 (6): 1448–1458.  DOI: 10.1111/j.1523-1739.2010.01562

Black, S. A., Groombridge, J. J., & Jones, C. G. (2011). Leadership and conservation effectiveness: finding a better way to lead. Conservation Letters, 4(5), 329-339.

Black S. A., Meredith, H.M.R. and Groombridge J.J. (2011) Biodiversity Conservation: applying new criteria to assess excellence, TQM and Business Excellence 22 (11): 1165-1178

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