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

Consequences of over-management: total cost

It is not often that we get a chance to observe the consequences of management. In this stark case below we consider resourcing.

Insightful satire on resourcing by Erik Meijaard (click to enlarge to full size)

Of course whilst the example given above is ‘tongue in cheek, the message is not – why do we design funding and resourcing in a way that constrains the use of that very resource or constrains the direction and type of work that a programme undertakes?

Clearly the funders set the rules and we as project leaders may have no inflience over those rules. Instead we have an alternative consideration – is it worth our while to chase funding that will constrain or distract us from our work?

The only way we can look at this is to consider the concept of Total Cost. Is the total cost of following a path worth the short term advantage of taking the resource (or work) on? It is similar to considering making savings when building a house. If we cut corners now, will the house be functional or safe in the future – short term gain versus long term pain.

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.

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:

http://tribune.com.pk/story/1181317/road-freedom-official-negligence-results-turtles-death/

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

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).

Reading:

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) https://hbr.org/2007/03/from-swot-to-tows-answering-a-readers-strategy-question/

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.

 

Reading

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

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.
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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.
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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.
Reading:

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 Details AND the Big Picture: how do we keep the balance?

Simon Black – 

A ‘helicopter view’ is an important capability for a conservation leader. The leader needs to be able to examine details of the programme, then position that knowledge in the context of the wider programme purpose and vision. This includes how budgets are organised, resources planned, goals set and how external partnership  are arranged.

With a helicopter view the leader is well placed to delegate and coach the team, to intervene and support where needed, to revisit, change or improve approaches where required. Most importantly the leader can see where ‘the way things are done’ helps (or doesn’t help) the achievement of the team’s purpose.

  • Consider both project details and the big picture
  • See and understand internal & external organizational dynamics.
  • Know projects’ sphere of influence—identify solvable problems.
  • Establish budgets and a clear fund-raising strategy.
  • Design financial/non-financial metrics to relate to conservation
  • Provide information, technology & resource to assist the work.
  • Encourage cooperation & sharing with partners to improve work.
  • Anticipate unexpected outcomes.
  • Be prepared to seek specialist advice from external sources.
  • Integrate flexible management with professional/scientific rigor.
  • Use data on staff, communities, or society if it helps the program.

Further Reading:

Black, S. A., Groombridge, J. J., & Jones, C. G. (2011a). Leadership and Conservation Effectiveness: Finding a Better Way to Lead.Conservation Letters, 4, 329-339.http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1755-263X.2011.00184.x

Systems Thinking for Conservation Leaders

Simon Black – 

In recent years we have started talking about the suitability of systems thinking in relation to conservation management. The approach is non-hierarchical (so is not reliant on a political or cultural norm) – it is a way of managing that cuts through the necessity of a hierarchy. If you do have hierarchical leaders, they just need to start asking different questions. Systems thinking (e.g. the team are a system, they operate in a work system, the organisation is part of a larger system) clearly fits with the notion of ecosystems and complexity which is at the core of conservation.

Knowledge is at the core of systems thinking, optimisation of the system is critical and anything which undermines this is to be avoided. Simplicity of intervention is paramount, and taking different approaches to managing ‘exceptions’ and ‘the norm’ is importnat.

Many of these things are obvious but the ways in which we tackle them ARE OFTEN COUNTER-INTUITIVE. For example:

  • to increase motivation do not attempt to ‘motivate’ people,
  • incentives do not incentivise what we want to be done,
  • re-training is not the best way to improve worker capability,
  • standardisation of work causes increased failure,
  • targets are counterproductive,
  • a focus on cost reduction will not reduce costs,The list goes on…

Some principles of system thinking include:

  • Managing improvement is about understanding predictability of the system. Predictability is based on an understanding of either:
    (i) data over time or (ii) cause and effect.
  • The start point in working in a complex environment is to study it (not plan) and to understand how it currently supports the conservation purpose, and how (through flow of processes and systems). If the purpose of the system is understood, then measures to examine the system can be put in place and then methods for improving the system versus measures and purpose can be experimented with, thereby further informing the understanding of the system.
  • When you want to make a change the only plan you need is how to study the system – all the work thereafter follows. In ecosystems we are unlikely to know all of the complexity of processes, but by continual experimentation and learning we understand what has a positive impact (and what does not) for the species of concern.
  • The ‘demand’ (defined as species and ecosystems’ needs including threats) is the biggest lever for change – so it must be understood. It can be understood by the people doing the work (or affecting the system) only through their study of and understanding of the realities and patterns of those demands.
  • An understanding of ‘demand’ drives the leader to consider which bits of the system need to be learned about and for which improvement could be focused.
  • Cooperation is a consequence of the design of the work system – the system governs people’s behaviours, not the other way around. This is important in working with teams, communities, businesses.

Note that the only standardisation that occurs in this approach is to develop measures of purpose. All else needs to developed in the context of the species and ecosystems of concern. With the measures in place, all work will follow the measures to drive improvement.

Reading

Black, S.A. (2015) A Clear Purpose is the Start Point for Conservation Leadership. Conservation Letters. DOI: 10.1111/conl.12203

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

Does ‘best’ conservation method mean ‘best’ results?

Simon Black –

Best practice standards are commonly seen as a sure-fire route to successful improvement. After all – who could question the value of implementing best practice? However a prudent conservation leader should be prepared to question the supposed value of ‘best practice’. What does the approach mean in the context of your conservation work?

Why question it?

Any method has to make sense in the context and purpose of what it is trying to deliver. Best practice in cleaning tables might be vital in preparing an operating theatre but might be excessive, costly and irrelevant when applied to a door making factory. The purpose of the work is important. For example, best practice in breeding passerines might not be ‘best’ for your species if you find that all of your captive clutches perish.

Conservation is rife with uncertainty and unknowns. In delivering conservation projects you need to build in flexibility. This means that you have to think carefully about what your species and ecosystems of concern need and therefore what you must do to meet that need – otherwise a poorly considered method will not deliver what is really needed. Deming, the management ‘guru’ of the 20th century always used to ask ‘by what method?’ What he meant was this – the way that you go about something influences the outcomes that you achieve.

Over and above this, if you do implement a standard way of working, you tend to build in both rigidity (a lack of flexibility to meet differing needs). This rigidity has proven to hold many conservation projects back from achieving real progress (Clark, 1994; Black, Groombridge and Jones, 2011). You are also likely  to push your results further away from the ideal, because natural systems experience huge amounts of variation; one clutch of birds in one tree will differ in their needs (to some degree) from the clutches in any other tree.

Seddon states “Don’t codify method”  – in other words don’t write it all down and demand that everyone sticks to the written code.  But why?  Surely standardisation will ensure quality (especially if the standard is shown to be best)? Of course writing down method tells us what we are doing, but if a better way becomes available we need to be ready to flex the method, or apply a one-off approach if needs demand it. However as conservation scientists we should not do this as a random approach – we need to use proper experimental design and hypothesis testing.

We need to keep observing and thinking as we conduct conservation work, not just carry out procedures ‘parrot fashion’. To paraphrase Mitch Ditkoff, when imitation replaces creativity, something invariably gets lost – and innovation eventually goes down the drain.

As a leader keep thinking and encourage your team to think about their work too.

 

Black, S. A., Groombridge, J. J., & Jones, C. G. (2011a). Leadership and Conservation Effectiveness: Finding a Better Way to Lead. Conservation Letters, 4, 329-339. http://dx.doi.org/10.1111/j.1755-263X.2011.00184.x

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

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