Starting with little, to achieve something great

In conservation we are working in the business of change. We want to improve the situation for a species, or remove threats, or recover a landscape, or enable humans to co-exist  with a sustainable natural environment.

As humans within human society and as biologists working with species and ecosystems we need to recognise that change is not a cause-effect process. Instead we should think of it as an emergent property – an outcome of many interventions and interactions with the things we are concerned about and their wider environment.

It is almost inconceivable that a rhino has recently been killed in a French zoo by poachers for its horn . Yet this is an outcome from changes in the system – the the need for income by criminals, the demand for horn, the depletion in accessibility to alternative wild supplies (due to better wildlife protection). We need to truly understand the dynamics in order to eliminate the threat and this takes constant learning – what worked before might not be relevant today. This sometimes seems too much to tackle.

We cannot do everything today. So how do we start?

Black Robin. Photo originally by schmechf, modified by Wikimedia Commons.The best processes of learning, improvement and innovation start small and grow big. This is also true in many cases within the conservation sector.

The Chatham Island Black Robin, Mauritius Kestrel and other species have been brought back from the brink by making initial steps, learning and continuing to make those steps. Start small and then build up. This strategy enables us to move fast and act, but most importantly learn, improve and upscale carefully. These examples are clearly not as complex or global as the system that impacts rhino conservation, but we must never be too afraid to learn how to innovate.


Further reading:

Gagliardo, R., Griffith, E., Mendelson, J., Ross, H., and Zippel, K. (2008). “The principles of rapid response for amphibian conservation, using the programmes in Panama as an example”. International Zoo Yearbook 42 (1): 125–135.

Herrero, L. (2006) Viral Change, meetingminds, UK.

Martin, T. G., Nally, S., Burbridge, A. A., et al. (2012). Acting fast helps avoid extinction. Conservation Letters, 5, 274-280.


Relevant links:


The only plan is to gain knowledge

Simon Black –

Traditional change management follows a linear approach, defining a goal, identifying a plan and delivering to that plan. The process is logical and surely unquestionable. However this is an example of linear thinking, which is rarely the appropriate way to consider complex conservation problems.

Ecosystems, landscapes, habitats, communities, species, populations do not act in a linear fashion, they are much more complex. This means that if you change one thing then something unexpected is likely to happen somewhere else – and what you had intended may or may not happen.

Of course understanding systems can be a difficult thing to do. Instead, managers either resort to ‘giving their view’ on things, or setting success measures based on those views. Having a view on why things are a problem is one thing, but  it is better to get knowledge by collecting data (Deming 1993; Seddon 2005).

It is better to define the following:

  • Purpose is the definition of why we are here, best understood from the species or ecosystem perspective.
  • Measures allow us to understand what is likely to happen in future if the system (including human community interactions, commercial industrial or agricultural land use, wildlife trade etc) doesn’t change.
  • Method – can be addressed when we understand the data derived from our measures.
Manatee deaths due to watercraft collisions in Florida. Knowing the occurrence level (Measure) can we do anything (Method) to reduce unnecessary mortality of manatees (Purpose)?

Systems Theory tells us that Purpose, Measures and Method are fundamentally linked – it is a systemic relationship. This systemic relationship can either work for you or against you depending on how you set things up.

The paradox is that in this system, change requires no plan. For Seddon, change is simply an emergent property. It can only occur if you set things up that enable people to innovate with interventions in response to the real system of species and ecosystems – what happens.

Any attempt to plan change otherwise is fiction.



Deming, W.E. (1993) The New Economics, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

Seddon, J. (2005). Freedom from Command and Control. Buckingham: Vanguard Press.



The Need for Speed : change need not be a slow business

Simon Black –

Change is very often considered to be a slow and often difficult process, particulalry in wildlife conservation. With human communities there is a particular problem and ‘culture change’ is seen as a long and winding road. Howveer it is not always the barrier that it appears to be – human beings are notable as creatures that have mastered  (or, at least, have developed) the art of adapting. We have changed our knowledge, decisions, behaviour, environment, relationships, societies. It is too easy to think that we ‘don’t like change’. This is simply not the case. We are beings that not only adapt to what is around us, but we often actively choose to change what is around us. After all, it is not uncommon for us to seek to find ways to make things better or different (either for ourselves or, sometimes, others!).

My great-grandfather (who was still around when I was a youngster) was born into the Victorian age in the 1880s when the motor car had not been invented. He was already a young man when the Wright brothers first flew at Kitty Hawk, yet lived to experience flying in jet airliners and even saw the Apollo astronauts land on the moon. His life experiences, work and education had to adapt fairly radically, but I imagine it was a fairly natural process – that’s life.

Whilst change should be seen as a ‘natural’ process, for conservation it is a question of moving people towards a desired state and away from an undesied state. This might be about resource use, attitudes to wildlife, cultural norms, business interests. But even these sorts of changes can occur in noticeable timescales; weeks and months not years. Changes should move into short timescales to become noticeable, rather than at barely-observable ‘glacial’ rates. Herrero (2006) goes further, suggesting that if cultural changes cannot be observed in short time-frames, then something is wrong.

  • “Cultural change does NOT need to be a slow and painful long-term affair.” – there is a better way.
  • “Short-term wins CAN represent real change.”  with viral networks which engage many people, small changes can lead to a big impact.

We need to accelerate change by engaging networks of people in making things happen. In a previous post it was suggested that small sets of behavioural changes, taken on and shared by informal groups of people can generate improvements in a non-linear way, as Hererro terms it, a ‘viral’ spread.

To influence others we need to encourage quick, meaningful changes; not just ticking items off the ‘to do’ list, but adopting new behaviours, new ways of thinking, new habits. These things may appear less tangible, but they do have impact, they don’t need to wait for a sign-off by top management and they do allow change to happen much quicker.

It may be a matter of worling with a few people who are open minded, Their experiences may influences others. It is likely to involved continual effort – very unlikely for a one-off intervention to have an impact. The RARE approach tp cultural change is an example of this extended, targetted and influentual approach. It mobilises people within the ecosystems of concern for the benefit of species and landscapes.

This means that when we consider the ecosystems and landscapes of conscern we also need to consider how humans fit as part of that system and how thier behaviours, norms and expectations can be an engine for positive change.

Further reading:

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

Herrero, L. (2006) Viral Change, meetingminds, UK.

Insights taken from an Understanding of Variation: (iii) Real improvement can be isolated from random noise

One of the most important things for conservation practitioners to be able to do is to detect real improvement (or real declines) from otherwise random changes for a species or ecosystem (Black and Copsey 2013).

Systems behaviour charts allow you to identify the difference between random changes and non-random changes -to see whether the ‘system’ has fundamentally changed if we use the rules summarised by Black (2015)

If we take the example of the recovery of Puerto Rican Parrots, initially managed by Snyder et al (1987) in the 1970s and 1980s, we see phases of the parrot population going up and down over time, some points above a mean line and some below (as you would expect).puerto-rican-parrots-chart

Where the pattern of data falls outside this expectation, the system has fundamentally changed. In the case of the Puerto Rican parrots, this occurred in 1978 and again more fundamentally in  1989. It even looks like a new breakthrough may follow on from 2009.

Even more important than the actual numbers however, is the insight from plotting natural limits and warning limits. For the parrots we see that although the population is generally improved it is not stable and could be expected throughout the 2000s to drop to less than 10 birds as much as rise to 65. Indeed today’s population could yet be vulnerable to extinction – with a projected lower natural limit appearing to be below zero using most recent year’s data .


Black S.A. (2015) System behaviour charts inform an understanding of biodiversity recovery. International Journal of Ecology, 2015 (787925): pp6

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

Snyder,N. F. R. , Wiley, J. W. and Kepler, C. B. (1987) The Parrots of Luquillo: Natural History and Conservation of the Puerto Rican Parrot,Western Foundation of Vertebrate Zoology, Los Angeles, Calif, USA.

110 Success Stories for Endangered Species Day 2012: Puerto Rican parrot (Amazona vittata), March 2015,

Endangered Species Act Works: Puerto Rican parrot Amazona vittata, 2015, works/caribbean.html.

When the ‘purpose’ of work is forgotten…peril and failure

Simon Black –

Probably the most fundamental aspect of leadership is to keep yourself and your team focused on the purpose of your work (Black et al, 2013; Black 2015).

Although this might seem obvious, it is actually very easy to be distracted. Sometimes it is the distraction of personal ambition, the needs of stakeholders (including one’s managers), ‘interesting work’ and so on.

The black-spotted turtles were released in Indus River near Kalar Goth on Monday morning. PHOTO: EXPRESS Here is a stark example of a lack of focus on purpose (conserving black-spotted turtles) leading to a mess up, exacerbated by (probably) panic and further blatant negligence (reported by witnesses). This did little for the turtles or the people charged with protecting them.

  1. Turtles were rescued from illegal smuggling (purposeful).
  2. They were taken to a release site, the Indus river (purposeful).
  3. The turtles stored in an office so that the release could be photographed the next day (a plausible approach to publicity, but not purposeful).
  4. The turtles died in the bags, or during handling (negligence).
  5. The bodies were discarded into the river (negligence).

All could have been avoided with either:

(i) a night-time release (if animals were healthy / disease free).

(ii) quarantine or pre-release in the pool facility which had been used on previous occasions

Both (i) and (ii) are purposeful – to conserve the turtles.

The opposite to negligence is diligence – leaders and team members must be diligent in their focus on the true and valuable purpose of work.

Read the article here:

Further reading:

SA Black, Groombridge, J.J. and Jones, C.G. (2013) Using better management thinking to improve conservation effectiveness. ISRN Biodiversity, Article ID 784701

Black, S.A. (2015) A clear purpose is the Start Point for Conservation Leadership. Conservation Letters.  8 (5): 383–384. DOI: 10.1111/conl.12203

Insights taken from an Understanding of Variation: (ii) A moment in time…is never enough to understand the whole story

manatee-mortality-figureThe status of any situation cannot be best judged from an isolated point in time. It is also dangerous to judge one point in time versus another point in time (such as this year versus last year). Consider this in the case of a population of rare birds, or the status of your budget, or the number of volunteers in your organisation. The only meaningful understanding of a data point is where it sits in the context of the past, and ideally, the future. For example if we look at manatee boat-collision mortality (right) and we have an annual count of 50 manatee deaths, is that good., bad or indifferent?

Prediction of the future is one of the most important but elusive skills that a manager can possess. Of course no one can actually predict the future, but we can identify predictable elements, or degrees of predictability. The best methods for prediction are based on using empirical data. In management circles, rather than establishing complex predictive models, the most pragmatic approach is to establish a picture of the current system and then base expectations on the predictability of the patterns of data in that system. For example with the Florida Manatee (above) we see three (or four) systems  – a stable low level of collision deaths (to 1983), then a higher level from 1984-1997, then an unstable period 1997-1999, then a new system thereafter. You have to loo at the right system to understand what might happen next.

It is also unhelpful to define a level of performance as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. They key thing is how to stabilise it and how to make it better. The system in the 1990s is driven by the higher numbers of watercraft on the river systems – so collisions are more likely. We cannot say things are worse than in the 1970s, just that the likelihood of collision deaths is greater – and we might want to do something about that (such as impose slower waterway speed limits).


Black S.A. (2015) System behaviour charts inform an understanding of biodiversity recovery. International Journal of Ecology, 2015 (787925): pp6

A start point for Strategy is TOWS not (SWOT)

Many of us will be familiar with the use of SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) analysis when initially defining strategy. Practitioners like Michael Watkins have argued that traditional SWOT analysis gets people to consider organizational strengths and weaknesses, but end up in “abstract, navel-gazing discussions about ‘what are we good at’ and ‘what are we bad at‘”. In other words, the SWOT exercise becomes rather un-purposeful and delivers less than useful outcomes.

SWOT pic
Michael Watkins suggest you should consider the external environment first before defining your own capability

Watkins himself suggests that we start in the reverse order looking at THREATS and OPPORTUNITIES first because it gets people to consider the external environment first.

John Seddon would call this looking at things from the ‘outside in’ and from a systems perspective this makes complete sense. You should not design organisations, or  plans or strategies on the basis of what the plan should be like, but instead design in on the basis of the demands and needs that it must meet.

In other words, the relevant strengths and weaknesses of an organisation must be related to the actual demands, threats, constraints and opportunities which the organisation must face.

Apparently according to Watkins the only reason SWOT is presented as such is because the acronym is memorable and stuck. Again, management fad-ism seems to have overtaken sensible consideration of method (how you run a strategic development process)!

Remember when you conduct your SWOT  – or more correctly TOWS analysis start by using your knowledge of threats and opportunities – defined by real data, including the performance achieved by the organisation and the demands. threats and expectations of other stakeholders (including for us in conservation- populations, species, ecosystems and landscapes).


Seddon, J. (2005) Freedom from Command and Control, Vanguard Press, Buckingham, UK.

Watkins M. (2007 From SWOT to TOWS: answering a readers querstion. Harvard Business Review)

The definition of leadership – where to start…

Simon Black –

The simplest definition of leadership has been suggested as “…having followers” (Grint 2010). Notions of good or bad leadership become difficult, particularly when it comes to what a leader leads his or her followers to do. Then there are layers of how much followers take on their own initiative, how powerful the group dynamic is in generating effective work (whole greater than the sum of the parts ) and so on. Leadership is about the person, but it is also about the process and position in organisations, and of course about the purpose to which the leader directs people.

It is tempting to divide ‘leadership’ and ‘management’ into two separate activities, leadership being one about the future, about new or complex problems, strategic ; whilst management is about the ‘seen it before’ the mundane or ordinary, tactical. However more and more expert thinkers on these topics are realising that the two are both interlinked. Deming always linked them together (he called leadership ‘supervision’, but updated the terminology on advice of a colleague to ‘leadership’) and never divided the right way of thinking, the right way of envisioning improvement and potential success and enacting meaningful conversations with workers, ultimately to let them get on with effective work.

The most successful leaders are also the most successful at getting people to get on with purposeful work (‘management’). As a leader you need to know the purpose, know the work, understand what people are grappling with and give them all the resources (including your own input AND allowing them to use their own brains to the full) to enable them to do it.

There is no magic formula except to do things which are relevant to purpose and the work. If your interpersonal skills are rusty (or non-existent) then you can get away with it if you do those first two things.



Grint, K. (2010) Leadership: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press, Oxford UK.

The only plan you need is to gain knowledge…

In conservation we are usually in the business of change – either changing the fortunes of a species, for example recovering a population, changing a landscape, changing the attitudes of people towards species and ecosystems, changing the impact of threats. The best leaders face these realities and then work out how to address the issues. This is an adaptive process, there may be no plan.

Warren Bennis talks about ‘mastery of the context’. You need to understand the context then work your way through it towards what you want to achieve.

John Seddon goes further – if you want to improve something do not build a plan. When you make a change the only plan should be to study the system – to get knowledge. That knowledge will inform you – you will be able to work out what you need to do. And working it out should not be based upon assumptions or experience of ‘how we did it before’. The working out requires the further acquisition of knowledge.

Once change is applied we should ask ‘is it working’ – and how do we find out? y seeking knowledge of the results.

This is, of course, the scientific process. In the scientific cycle we might experiment to test an idea, but we don’t plan far into the future assuming we know the outcome already. Rather we go through cycles of knowledge acquisition to enable us to make further decisions about action and testing. The investment in thought, resources and time is focused upon action-ing what is important. The time spent on ‘management’ (planning, delegating, setting targets, monitoring) is eliminated. Everyone is instead focused on the work.


Bennis W. (1989) On becoming a leader. Addison Wesley, Reading MA.

Seddon, J. (2005) Freedom from Command and Control, Vanguard Press, Buckingham, UK.

How the last Montserrat ‘mountain chicken’ frogs could save their species

Simon Black –

The “mountain chicken” frogs on the Caribbean island of Montserrat are in a perilous and seemingly irredeemable situation. It’s worth questioning whether attempted recovery is even worth the effort. After all, this species, one of the world’s largest frogs, will have to recover from just two individuals.

Hunting, habitat destruction from the 1995 volcanic eruption, and the arrival of the recent fatal fungal infection, Chytridiomycosis (or “chytrid”), has devastated the population of these frogs.

Rarely has any species naturally recovered once reduced to a few individuals, without some sort of human assistance. The Seychelles kestrel is one exception. Species declines are largely caused by human activity, whether that be through direct killing, destruction of natural habitats, or the introduction of species like cats, rats or the chytrid fungus.

Mountain chicken frogs are surprisingly large. Jeff Dawson, Durrell
Sadly, even in recent times, extinctions occur in plain sight. China’s last Yangtze River dolphins, a male and a female, were separately held captive without being bred. Australia’s Christmas Island pipistrelle bat was confirmed extinct, frustratingly, during delayed attempts to rescue the last individuals. Similar late efforts failed to rescue the Po’ouli, a unique forest bird on Maui, Hawaii.

The lack of action in these cases was caused by bureaucracy, aversion to risk, politics, misplaced priorities, and professional bias; human rather than biological factors. Thankfully, other examples demonstrate a better way.

Bringing a species back from near-extinction

North America’s black-footed ferret was thought lost in the 1980s until several were discovered in Wyoming, which inspired a recovery programme. The California condor was reduced to 27 individuals sparking a controversial, but successful, captive-breeding initiative.

The Chatham Islands black robin: rescued from a single pair. leonberard/flickr, CC BY

In New Zealand, the Chatham Islands black robin was rescued from a single breeding pair. On Mauritius, once the island of extinction, the local kestrel was considered a lost cause by the mid 1970s and was then the rarest bird in the world, yet decades later the population has been recovered by active management and now hundreds of pairs of birds live free on the island.

These cases required pioneering innovations, such as double-clutching (removing eggs to encourage pairs to breed again), using common species as adoptive parents, and training captive-bred animals for wild release. Leaders such as Don Merton, Tom Cade, Noel Snyder and Carl Jones shared ideas with colleagues across continents, fuelling knowledge and experimentation. Actually getting on with the work is important. For Jones, too many people “talk about conservation…but we’ve got to do it rather than talk about it”.

Rare species are not just an interesting entry in the catalogue of life. They have a function in the natural world. Amphibians are important in controlling insects and other invertebrates. In Montserrat, for instance, some farmers have noticed increased levels of crop pests since the frogs disappeared.

In practice, action first means setting short-term goals. For the mountain chicken frog, this involves moving the female into the male’s territory, building artificial nests, and protecting locations from threats.

The work must also pursue a long-term vision. A sustainable wild population of frogs means that captive-breeding, already undertaken in bio-secure facilities, is not the sole answer. Threats like chytrid need to be understood first to inspire possible solutions. The disease will not disappear just by increasing the numbers of frogs (though frog population is of course critical).

Fieldwork requires painful attention to detail, literally sitting with the animals to prevent disturbances, then monitoring offspring survival, assessing and carefully improving habitats, and moving individuals to new, safe locations. Conservationists need patience and determination to overcome disappointments. They must seek to understand changing circumstances, keep open to ideas and be willing to develop new approaches if things do not go well. Carl Jones suggests that recovery requires about 20 breeding cycles. That means 20 years for species that breed annually. Improved understanding can however, accelerate recovery.

Recent efforts in the US with the California Channel Islands fox restored a handful of surviving individuals to a thriving population in just a decade. The near-extinct Mauritius kestrel bounced back to a free-living population from just four birds. India’s unique pygmy hog was reintroduced after successful breeding of a few animals taken from the wild. Conservation is getting smarter and more effective.

So on Montserrat, people must act fast while hope remains. A sustainable frog population must be a priority. If people carefully use their knowledge, this extraordinary giant, the mountain chicken frog might withstand threats of disease and habitat pressure on its tiny, volcanic island home.

The original version of this article appeared in The Conversation