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


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.

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.


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.

Insights taken from an Understanding of Variation: (i) stability versus change

Simon Black –

As scientists we are used to data analyses providing information, but it is less common to see data analysis directly informing management decision-making. Experience of using and developing control charts which has been established over the past eighty years, can provide methods which will help the conservation manager to build a more complete understanding and therefore make better decisions. An example suggested by Black (2015) shows how the increasing trend in manatee deaths, although potentially attributed to a growing manatee population, can also be identified to occur in three separate stages. The stabilisation of counts at each stage indicate a new ‘status quo’ has been established. In this case the introduction of watercraft speed limits established a new ‘status quo’.

manatee data

In other words, increases in manatee mortality are not inevitable if management decisions can be made which stabilise and improve the system – for example can other waterway management measures be implemented?


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

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.


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