Targets only motivate people to meet the target (not to do good conservation work)

Simon Black – 

The reasons for employing people are:

1) to do the work (produce output, product, service), and

2) to improve the work.

If the person is clear about the purpose of their work, then 1 and 2 should be easy to deliver if they have the right resources, skills, and understanding of users’ (e.g. customers) needs.

But managers rarely leave it at that…

Traditionally, managers get people to do ‘better’ in their work by what John Seddon tags as ‘sweating the labour’ – getting the people to work harder or faster. The idea is that you get more output for the same hours work – essentially more for the cost (efficiency).

Of course the idea of the sweatshop is morally uncomfortable – exploitation to achieve a profit motive. Yet we still stick to the idea by setting targets: ‘You produced 100 widgets last month, let’s have you aim for 110 widgets this month‘.

It seems plausible – motivational even! What possibly could be the harm in setting a target?

Well, the widgets are being created for a purpose – presumably the purpose for which the customer buys them. And that purpose is associated with the design and quality if production in the widget that is produced.

If you create arbitrary targets (and measures of performance) you will create a de facto purpose in people’s mind which is to deliver those targets. This is different from actually delivering the purpose of the work.

Your worker will work to produce 110 widgets BUT not necessarily a widget that meets the customer needs, nor a widget that could be produced faster or at lower cost whilst still meeting the customers needs, other than by cutting corners (lowering quality or increasing risk). The worker is busy but has got his eye off the ball. This produces errors and lowers the quality of work – which will probably have to be redone – at greater cost.

Targets are not motivational. They might make people move, but that is not motivation. A dog that moves is just one looking to avoid the next kick. It is not a motivated, free thinking, creative, proactive animal. Why would we exect people to operate any differently?


Herzberg, F. (1968) “One more time: how do you motivate employees?”, Harvard Business Review, vol. 46, iss. 1, pp. 53–62

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

Celebrating a great conservation leader – Professor Carl Jones MBE

Simon Black –

This week Carl Jones was awarded the 2016 Indianapolis Prize which was instigated in 2005 to celebrate the men and women who have made extraordinary contributions to the sustainability of wildlife.

Carl, the Chief Scientist for Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust and Scientific Director for the Mauritian Wildlife Foundation, received the award for his momentous​ victories saving species and restoring ecosystems. These are all well documented elsewhere (for example see the Durrell site), but in a nutshell, Carl’s achievements in saving bird, bat and reptile species on Mauritus and Rodrigues account for about 10% of all recovered species globally. His bird recoveries (Pink Pigeon, Mauritius Kestrel, Echo Parakeet, Rodrigues Fody and Rodrigues Warbler) account for 19% of all saved bird species.

For all of his accolades, Carl is most satisfied that, through the award, the importance of these less well-recognised species of Mauritius has been honored.

What is important in Carl’s work, aside from the fact that animals still exist in the Mascarene forests today which would otherwise be limited to a few dusty museum skins, is that he has pioneered a method. Species conservation is about doing it not just talking about it. Hands-on skills are vital, as is a commitment to short-term goals, but always with a long term vision of what could be achieved.

For Carl, leadership is not about the leader, but about leading others in the work, and enabling them to take up the mantle, to apply and further develop skills and techniques. Hundreds of people have been ‘apprentices’ in Mauritius and now work all over the globe directly influenced and taught by Carl. His is a great example of distributed leadership.

It is a pleasure to work with Carl, picking out the do’s and don’ts of conservation management. It was fantastic to see his career of over 40 years recognised for its outstanding achievements. Long may his influence continue to enable the recovery and sustainability of wildlife on the planet.

Black, S.A. (2016) How the last two Montserrat ‘mountain chicken’ frogs could save their species. The Conversation


Leaders must focus on ‘what’ & worry less about the ‘how’

Simon Black – 

So, we are grappling with the idea that conservation professionals need to be more effective at leadership. This demands a whole new set of skills – an almost overwhelming array of strategic, mental, interpersonal and management techniques. What on earth should we work on first?

The emerging consensus over recent decades in discussions about leadership and management behaviour has emphasised that a leader needs to ‘change the way that they lead’. Although the ‘how you do it’ and ‘what you do’ both contribute to effective leadership, the research literature is overwhelmingly focused on the how (Kaiser et al, 2012). Hunt (1991) reviewed the body of published scholarly articles on leadership and estimated that 90% of them were focused on interpersonal processes. It is also most likely that the majority of leadership developers and consultants have a ‘how’ bias, which may influence the debate. The focus is on how you go about things.

But do leaders know ‘what’ to do? Should we agree aims, develop a vision, inspire people, create teams, empower, engage, delegate, set targets, punish, reward, restructure, enable, measure results, improve services, prioritise, plan or problem-solve? What do these things mean? Which things are helpful and which things just cause problems?

Let’s be clear, our own styles and preferences (hows) are different to each member of out team. We need to be able to adapt in order to interrelate with others. But that may just be the icing on the cake. If we don’t get the ‘whats’ right we will only be deluding ourselves.

But as a conservation leader focus first on what needs to be done:

  • providing clarity on purpose
  • developing knowledge (of species, ecosystems, threats and methods)
  • setting useful and meaningful goals
  • building robust and practical plans
  • enabling problem solving and encouraging learning
  • setting clear roles for people
  • manage the work (with the people who do it)
  • adapting plans to suit circumstances

There are also some definite ‘No-No’s’ to avoid. For starters I suggest that you DO NOT do the following things:

  • set targets (numerical targets DO NOT motivate/focus people)   N
  • blame people for mistakes (its not their ‘fault’ 90% of the time)  O
  • manage people (focus on the work instead)                                      |
  • make point-to-point comparisons, like this year v last year          N
    (instead look at the body of data over time).                                     O

Get clarity in what you think and what you say. Be straight with people and don’t play psychological games. Once those things are clear in your ahead, work harder of the softer skills – they will make life easier and more fun.


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

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

Deming W.E. (1982) Out of the Crisis, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

Hunt, J. G. (1991). Leadership: A new synthesis. Newbury Park, CA: Sage.

Improvement starts with a leap of fact, not faith

Simon Black – 

  • What should we improve and why?
  • What has changed?
  • How do we improve things, where … when?
  • Who should we involve?

If we start to address these questions and filter out assumptions and  preconceptions, we are able to make some sensible decisions about how to make effective changes that will have a positive effect on performance.

The world is not perfect and we are unlikely to always have the time and resources to gather the complete picture of what is happening. Nevertheless it is important that we seek out and analyse relevant data in order to make some reasonably robust assumptions about what we can do.

There are two common failures of action, lets call them type 1 and type 2 (which is what statisticians call them). Another definition would be a mistake in identification between ‘common causes’ and ‘special causes’ of variation; without understanding the difference we risk just ‘tampering’. What we want to avoid is the delusion that feel like we are doing something useful but actually only making things worse (Deming, 1982).

“Common Causes”

Common cause situations are those where performance goes up and down over time and if analysed properly can be seen to occur over a relatively predictable pattern: if we change nothing, the performance level will most likely continue. The problems arise when  someone thinks they see a real difference between points of data when in fact no such thing exists. This a type 1 error: we observe  a change which is really only a natural effect of background ‘noise’ yet we choose to act on that ‘change’. For example someone in the team achieves a great result whilst others do not achieve the same result. Is the difference because of the person, or something else in the wider context? Perhaps, as is often the case, they just got lucky and happened to be the one that achieved the good result. Next week it might be someone else. The analogy  is a fire alarm going off indicating a fire when in fact there is no fire. It is easy to fall into type 1 errors assuming highs and lows of performance which don’t exist. This is a ‘mistake of commission’  – doing something that should not have been done (Ackoff et al 2006).

“Special Causes”

Some special causes are obvious, for example a major increase or decrease in performance or a freak accident. However, sometimes hidden patterns of performance can indicate a real change which might easily go undetected if we consider each data point as a ‘one off’. This is a bit like a fire breaking out but the fire alarm not ringing. The fundamental problem is that these genuine changes are due to ‘Special Causes’ something real which is impinging on the system. The issue here is that the solution sits outside the system – don’t redesign what you have as it will not replicate the situation – that is just meddling and will make things worse. For example, cycles of deteriorating work output followed by improving work output by one person might indicate an underlying special cause which needs to be addressed (health for example), so meddling with the design of the work in itself would be counterproductive. Furthermore if the manager does not look at performance over time, these cycles might not be detected anyway – on average they might look like a reasonable level of output. Ackoff calls this a mistake of omission –not doing something that should have been done.

An example can been encountered in Human Wildlife Conflict. A ‘rogue’ animal may change its behaviour due to injury or illness and preferentially predate livestock for a period of time. If a decision is made to destroy the animal (or relocate it to a more remote area) should the same policy be applied to any animal which predates livestock? For the one-off animal a one-off intervention might succeed, but if it were to be repeated for every animal it would certainly be costly (relocation) and might make things worse (e.g. if destroying every animal).  Clearly identifying whether the rogue animal is an ‘exception’ or a ‘common cause’ is important.

Of course to detect differences between special cause and common cause varuiations in performance requires new skills and disciplines of thinking. When you understand the organisation as a system, improving service starts with a leap of fact, not faith.


Ackoff, R.L.; Addison, H. J. Bibb, S. (2006) Management f-Laws: How Organizations Really Work. Triarchy Press

Deming W.E. (1982) Out of the Crisis, MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

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

Management is NOT about ‘Doing it to People’

Simon Black – 

A typical definition of management and leadership is:

Managing: gets the most efficient utility from people & resources;

Leadership: gets people to do things they would not otherwise do.”


In a nutshell those previous statements on management and leadership summarise conventional wisdom  accrued since 1900, first through either traditional  ‘scientific management’ methods or later ‘human relations’ approaches. The latter approach, pioneered by Elton Mayo, was apparently devised to counteract the rigidity and hierarchies of the former. Unfortunately both approaches have the same defective focus – ‘doing it to people’. They are both a reflection of a command-and -control mindset which many would percieve as ‘managerialism‘.

There are two basic reasons for hiring people – to do the work and to improve the work (a tag line which I attribute to the psychologist and author John Seddon). Managerialism involves neither activity – so why do we have managers and leaders? A leader’s job is to enable workers to do those two things and provide a context for understanding that activity.

Improvement comes from understanding the system and making meaningful improvements to ensure better outcomes. ‘Doing it to people’ does not achieve this, but simply adds new layers of new ‘work’ – appraisals, briefing meetings, writing reports, filling in forms. Worse still this work assumes that for people to be effective they need to have stuff ‘done’ to them – like an inoculation for inherent bad characteristics – perhaps laziness, lack of intelligence or (potential) insubordination. This is the darker side to a manager’s mindset.

Whilst most managers and leaders do not want to be working for the ‘dark side’ and genuinely want the better for their teams, they must understand that if they follow the scientific/human relations approach the consequences of their actions are: de-motivation, a loss of dignity, a diminished sense of purpose, and reduction of productivity in their staff. In other words the effect on their team is just as if they actually had a negative attitude towards those people. In other words their staff will not like it and work will be negatively affected.

In knowledge industries, additional contributions to the total cost of this disruption is hidden, for example losses of skilled workers, high staff turnover and recruitment and so on. In conservation projects these costs can be proportionally high and the impact on project continuity and sustainability huge.

The choice is clear: managers and leaders need to find a better way…


Hanlon G. (2015) The Dark Side of Management: A secret history of management theory, Routledge

Roscoe, P. (2015) How the takers took over from the makers. Times Higher Education, 26 November, p48

Seddon, J. (2003). Freedom from Command and Control. Buckingham: Vanguard Press.

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

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.


Counter-intuitive truths about working with people

Simon Black – 

Working with people often involves bumping into ‘counter-intuitive truths’ (Seddon, 2003): ideas that contradict everything which we have been taught about managing people.

Leaders therefore need to think seriously about the people they are leading and their needs (i.e to enable those people to get on with the work) far more than thinking about the ‘principles of good leadership’. In other words, think about ‘followers’ more than yourself as ‘leader’.

In conservation, this allows us to avoid problems of working in remote sites (often in close proximity), having multicultural (or at least cross-cultural) teams, working in second languages (or with translation), having multi-disciplinary teams or mixes of unskilled and technical workers, and so on.  Here are some of the realities and things to watch out for:

• Don’t ‘do it to people’: understand the system of work first – how work should be purposeful and how the flow of work (the order of tasks) can be made helpful

trend line•   Don’t chase things that don’t
exist (like supposed ‘trends’ in data) or arbitrary targets

•   Build knowledge, not opinion

•   Culture change is not something that you 'do' to peopleDon’t rely on top down change; take a lead yourself and start small if necessary.

•   Teamwork is about Purpose, Goals & Process more than about Behaviour. A conflict between people may not be a personality clash but actually be about work organisation.

•   Decision-making can involve people in many different ways. Participation and input from others will only help if they have insight and useful knowledge. It will also be really unhelpful if knowledgeable and insightful people  in the team (or local community) are ignored.

•  Change can be quick & painless at the right point of intervention (especially if you don’t ‘do it’ to people)

•  Doing things that are ‘nice’ to people (appraisals, recognition, involvement), might not be nice for those people – especially if the obvious problems of work are not addressed.


Beckhard, R. (1972) Optimizing Team Building Effort, J. Contemporary Business.  1:3,  pp.23-32

Seddon, J. (2003). Freedom from Command and Control. Buckingham: Vanguard Press.

Conservation Success & Continuous Improvement: accumulation of small gains

Simon Black – 

The recovery of endemic bird species in Mauritius has been notable in enabling the downlist of several Mauritian species on the IUCN Red List. In the case of the Mauritius Kestrel and the Pink Pigeon the recovery was from a handful of surviving individuals. How has this level of recovery been possible?

kestrel populationCarl Jones, who has led the Mauritian programmes for over 30 years, was quick to enhance his own knowledge of kestrel breeding with techniques which had previously proven successful in efforts in New Zealand and the USA. He has used a better way. Instead of imposing a command-and-control structure on his teams, he has developed a ‘system’ and more importantly, he appears to be applying systems thinking in the way that he manages the team. Every part of the system; habitats, diet, supplementary feeding, breeding facilities, nest locations, monitoring, predator eradication, bird behaviour, technical skills, equipment.

When we look to other sectors we see approaches which are reminiscent of the Mauritian philosophy. To some extend the levels of improvement seen in the GB cycling team over the past 10 years are a comparative illustration.

“We considered everything, even the smallest improvements, to give us a competitive edge. It was the accumulation of these small details that made us unbeatable.” Dave Brailsford, Team Chief, GB Cycling  – Gold Medal winners, London 2012 Olympics

So what does this mean for us in pursuing changes and improvements in our own conservation projects? It suggests to me that any organisation would benefit from a culture of learning and continuous improvement; work on what you CAN influence in the reasonable hope that it will overcome the factors over which you have no influence. Carl Jones puts this down to understanding the species, their ecology and threats. As Juran (1989) said – focus on the vital few rather than the trivial many to achieve your purpose then, as Senge (1990) urges, always keep an open mind to unexpected outcomes and be ready to understand what else needs to be done to improve

It is the size of influence which is important. The smallest things can be significant influencers. Conservation leaders need to be ready to spot and act upon opportunities when they arise.


Groombridge, J.J., Bruford, M.W., Jones, C.G. and Nichols, R.A. (2001) Evaluating the severity of the population bottleneck in the Mauritius kestrel Falco punctatus from ringing records using MCMC estimation. Journal of Animal Ecology, 70, 401-409

Juran J. (1989) Juran on Leadership For Quality, The Free Press, NY

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

How to reinvigorate your conservation team

Simon Black – 

  • Are the same old issues arising in your team?
  • Is the team stuck in its ways?
  • Are the team’s current work challenges seen as intimidating?
  • Have you ever felt “we’ve been here before“?
  •  Are the moaners still moaning?
  • Might the team admit to being stagnant, uninspired, or cruising?

What would make a difference; how can things change; are people the problem or is it something else? These issues are important in operational conservation field teams as much as in more complex interdisciplinary project teams (Black and Copsey 2014).

All teams go through various stages of development, from confidence to crisis, from challenge to success, from discomfort to familiarity, from suspicion to support. These cycles can occur in any order, sometimes a positive progression forwards but occasionally involving backsliding and disillusionment. A third common state is to have  absolutely no change at all – being stuck in a rut – for months, or even years.

The classic observation on team development was made by Bruce Tuckman and his memorable ‘Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing’ model. This model is helpful because it sets out some of things to address which will help to oil the wheels of more positive team development.

Clear goals, clear ground-rules (i.e. the ways we work together, talk to each other and use the time and space that we share), clear roles. These are the simple building blocks of effective teams. These things give space for individuals to get on with the work that they do alone and to interact effectively in the things that they need to do together. Clarifying these things as a team should also give space for people to raise questions or challenge things which don’t work well or appear to have little purpose.

So change the way the team works without meddling with the people in it. This gives everyone the choice to make progress alongside their colleagues – which, frankly, most people are quite happy to do.


Black, S.A. & Copsey, J.A. (2014). Purpose, Process, Knowledge and Dignity in Interdisciplinary projects. Conservation Biology. 28 (5): 1139-1141. DOI: 10.1111/cobi.12344

Tuckman, B.W. (1965) Developmental sequence in small groups.Psychological Bulletin 65, no.6: 384–99.

Tuckman, B.W. and Jensen M.A. (1977) Stages of small-group development revisited. Group and Organization Studies 2, no. 4: 419–27.