Why diversity in people counts – it’s the system

Simon Black – 

Responding to variety is one thing; but a variety of perspectives is quite another challenge, for both practical reasons and ethical reasons (Rogers & Williams, 2010).

Let’s think practically first – our understanding of many things will be flawed if we only consider one point of view.  Perspectives are closely associated with what you value. Perceptions of value have implications for stakeholders and for science – do we judge our work outputs by our own perspectives – or do we work to the expectations, needs and priorities of the people experiencing those outcomes? In conservation this can be complicated.
There are also serious ethical implications in considering a diversity of perspectives. A person or a certain group of people could get harmed if you don’t see things through an alternative perspective. This is particularly important when working with local communities in wildlife areas – what will be important to sustain conservation success? That topic is worth a separate blog in its own right, but Jane Goodall has recently challenged us to stop thinking ‘West knows Best‘ – listening and understanding gives insight.
Aside from that, our effectiveness as people is influenced by our understanding of alternative perspectives. A wider perspective allows us to consider inter-relationships better: how does my work affect yours, who else might be impacted, what are their priorities?
Often, any changes we make in a system of work are not simply a matter of cause and effect – not as straightforward as ‘I do this, then they will do that‘.  It is not just about A+B =C. There may be unforeseen consequences: more of C may impact on D, E, or F. Using up B might cause problems for X and Y and so on.

Of course there are practical limits to what we can consider – we need to put boundaries around our thinking. Where we set those boundaries will depend on our perspective, or ideally the various perspectives that we are prepared to consider (by questioning our own assumptions, or by asking other people). Every world-view is restricted and limited in some way, so when leading we need to remain conscious that:

  • a good first step to seeing the wider ‘system’ is to see the world through the eyes of another,
  • any judgement of activity sets up a boundary of ‘worthwhile’ and ‘not important’,
  • we should carefully consider the implications of any boundary which we set.

Churchman, C.W. (1968) The Systems Approach. Delta, NY

Couch R. (2015) 6 spot on things Jane Goodall said about inequality and saving the planet. Nov 27 http://www.upworthy.com/6-spot-on-things-jane-goodall-said-about-inequality-and-saving-the-planet

Heath C., and Heath, D. (2010) Switch: when change is hard, New York: Random House

Jacobs, C.J. (2009) Management Rewired: Why Feedback Doesn’t Work and Other Surprising Lessons from the Latest Brain Science. Penguin Group Portfolio, NY

Rogers, P. and Williams, R. (2010) Using Systems Concepts in Evaluation, in Beyond Logframe: Using Systems Concepts in Evaluation,  N. Fujita (Editor). Foundation for Advanced Studies on International Development, Tokyo.

The importance of learning – nothing is wasted

Simon Black – 

The term ‘learning organisation’ first gained popularity in the 1990s and is, unusually in the faddish world of  ‘management-speak’, one which seems to have endured. What is a ‘learning organisation’ and why try to become one?

An organisation that learns is best able to adapt. It finds out what works and what doesn’t and, most importantly, does something with that knowledge. Learning is a vital component of conservation management and enables continued insight into complex systems (ecosystems, social systems, agro-ecosystems and the like) which change over time. The most successful programmes are ones which have learned to adapt and have learned more about their species and ecosystems, their threats and opportunities.

However, a learning organisation doesn’t just accrue information. Some organisations appear to be addicted to data – searching for the ‘facts’ before decisions can be made. This is NOT a characteristic of  a learning organisation since it will cause one of two problems (or both): either the organisation will boil itself to death in trivia and noise and not pick up the important signals;  or statically churn data without adapting – paralysis by analysis. This is not learning.

A definitive feature about learning is that it involves proactively seeking out knowledge; to make good judgements based on insight. If we want people in our team, department or organisation to start learning, then we should steer them towards good judgements based on insights from analysis. The statement ‘costs are out of control’ is an opinion. However, if we define costs and out of control, we can then test that hypothesis and progress in our understanding (Scholtes 1998). This requires new disciplines of thought. For Deming, part of this transformation is about getting managers to see themselves as experimenters who lead learning.

The Learning Cycle (adapted from Scholtes 1998)
The Learning Cycle (adapted from Scholtes 1998)

A good way to represent this type of approach is the Deming Wheel (or Shewhart Cycle, as Deming labelled it) Plan-Do-Study-Act; the never-ending cycle of learning (Scholtes 1998). Deming called for a change from ‘opinions’ to hypotheses which we can test, understand and then apply that learning to our work activities.

Scholtes explains the phases of learning. ‘Plan’ and ‘Act’ are the stages of developing and reviewing theories and hypotheses. ‘Do’ and ‘Study’ are about application – work and the examination of work and outcomes. The phases of thinking and doing are intrinsically linked.

The best practitioners apply good science to their conservation interventions.

“There is nothing as practical as a good theory”   Kurt Lewin

Further Reading:

Drejer, A. (2000)”Organisational learning and competence development”, The Learning Organization, Vol. 7 Iss: 4 pp. 206 – 220

Scholtes, P. R. (1998) The Leader’s Handbook: A guide to inspiring your people and managing the daily workflow, New York: McGraw-Hill

Senge P. (1990) The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation, Doubleday, New York.

Other references:

Lewin, K. (1952) Field Theory in Social Science: Selected Theoretical Papers, p. 346. London: Tavistock.