Improvement and Learning: is this a core competence for conservation leaders?

Simon Black –

Why is improvement and learning a core area of capability for a conservation leader? Surely training people, sharing information, building knowledge and overcoming failure is a natural mindset for a capable scientist or field practitioner?

In truth you need to manage morale in your team because disappointments, unexpected failures and unwelcome new threats can arise. This means that you must ensure that success and failure are an opportunity to learn, not a moment to crush the spirit of team members. If you seek knowledge – what is being achieved (results), how things are done, how to improve – then you will encourage your team members to do the same. They will bring you their  difficulties and errors rather than hide them. This will give everyone a chance to reduce problems. It will also give space for people to enquire more deeply into failures, their causes and solutions, rather than dwell on dissappointment, negativity,  blame or self-loathing. Energy will be expended where it is needed.

Of course, people sometimes screw up. But you first need to check –  is this because they are in error (neglect) or is it because they lack capability (not trained, lack of experience, or inadequate resources)? If it is the latter, it is YOUR problem not theirs – you put them in a position to fail, so do something to prevent this happening again.

Remember to give a focus to people that makes sense to them. Don’t set improvement targets – these are just number plucked out of the air. Instead, think about what current work output (results) is actually telling you, then understand whether improvements can be made. Always focus this effort on the species and ecosystems of concern – how would this improvement help…?

  • Be receptive to (and seek out) alternative solutions.
  • Let staff to challenge, share & learn from mistakes, without fear.
  • Expect—and support staff to strive for—high standards.
  • Expect the project (and its needs) to evolve through time.
  • Understand risk factors and make suitable contingencies.
  • Work on system not people; celebrate success, learn from failure.
  • Focus improvement on biodiversity & work output (not ‘targets’)
  • Recognize difference between neglect and lack of capability
  • Let people experiment with methods to improve performance.
  • Let people ask for training and provide it on a just-in-time basis.

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.

Good performers will fail in a bad system

Simon Black –

Examples of failing systems are numerous, although often the finger of blame is pointed at the people who are at the sharp end.

In a blame culture managers will identify the problem as being the people at the sharp end. Blame is both self-fulfilling and self-deluding: it does not help us to understand what has gone wrong and why, because we are basing our judgement on a misplaced assumption  ‘people are the problem‘.

There is a neat way to define the power of the system, versus the expectations placed on people, in a quote attributed to Geary Rummler:   

“Put a good performer in a bad system
and the system wins every time”

So should we blame the manager? Well, simply, yes, because their job is to manage the system (and to improve it). In fact, that is pretty much all that their job should involve. As a coservation leader you must set up the goals, roles and work for your teams so that they are able to deliver the purpose of the conservation programme – and so that they know whether they are achieving this or not.

Further reading:

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

Rummler G. and Bache A. (1995) Improving Performance: how to manage the white space in the organization chart. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

The beauty 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 does ‘learning organisation’ mean in conservation 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.

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. Many government-led  species recovery projects have almost ground to a halt in the pursuit of data rather than action. This is not a characteristic of  a learning organisation and it will cause one of two things (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 – a 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 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.

“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.


Simon Black – 

Conflict in conservation is a commonly encountered issue. If we want to see meaningful conservation changes occurring, we need to start seeing any resistance that we encounter in a different light. Rather than considering resistance an unhelpful roadblock to change, we should perhaps see it as both an opportunity and an indicator of progress. The opportunity is that resistance opens a door to new dialogue with others. As an indicator, resistance shows us that people are noticing what we are doing.

As Herrero (2006) points out, the assertion that “People are resistant to change” is untrue. The reality is that people are resistant to change if nothing in terms of what people expect from them actually changes. Extending that notion, Seddon (2005) suggests that the reason people are resistant to change is that they often don’t see its relevance to their lives, because the rest of the system – how they are managed, doesn’t change. With the right encouragement these people can identify and discuss the other areas where change might be required – and themselves, with the right support,  start to influence that wider change.

Hererro suggests that we need to REJECT the position that “skeptical people and enemies of change need to be sidelined.” Instead when we manage change, Herrero suggests that greater care is required;

  • don’t assume that people have excluded themselves.
  • expect resistant behaviours to disappear when alternatives are reinforced.
  • give sceptics a bit of slack (they may well have something to contribute).
  • suspend judgement, be willing to be surprised, don’t write people off too quickly.
Changes in your behaviour will influence others

We should also recognise that discord provides opportunity for debate and the development of new ideas. We always need to examine what these ‘outsiders’ are saying and learn from them what the issues or problems really are.

This means that anyone involved in change, at whatever level, needs to take on responsibility for getting on with the change, to be seen to do the things we want to see done. We need to be open minded and able to discuss and debate effectively, not quash dissent, but seek opportunities for engaging new ideas.

Rather than challenging the nay-sayers with a dogma that ‘resistance is useless’ perhaps we should have a new perspective that will engage their input: resistance is useful!

Read more…

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

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

Accelerating conservation: can we learn from other sectors?

Can conservation learn from other sectors? Do we have the capacity to teach oursleves new wasy of designing, testing and improving the way we do conservation work? Good disciplines of management can be learned from other sectors; we just have to apply them in our work in the field, in zoos, and in collaborations with scientific institutions, governments and communities. It all starts with they way that we, as leaders, think – the assumptions we hold and the frameworks we use as the basis for our decision-making, planning, problem solving and interaction with other people.

We need to work smarter in order to keep up with the acceleration of pressure on natural resources which is driven by population growth and industrial development. Is this possible?

Dramatic turnarounds with species like the Mauritius Kestrel and Echo Parakeet have been shown to be possible. It is a question of learning. Some species, such as the Seychelles Kestrel have been shown to have recovered without human intervention – what can we learn from that?

To achieve more successful conservation we need to bridge the science-practitioner gap (Game et al., 2013). The latest developments in Mauritius are one example where deep scientific knowledge of the genetics of the Echo Parakeet now inform practical interventions to repopulate new habitats across the island with genetically robust birds (Tollington et al., 2013). Linking work to conservation goals is a leadership challenege rather than a scientific one.

It is still often found that projects, despite available expertise and resource, are hampered either by people rigidly sticking to outdated plans of action, or by being allowed to drift off course due to the pursuit of ill-conceived goals. These are symptoms of a hesitant or uninformed management approach. Science cannot provide the answers to these problems (Clark and Reading, 1994), but better leadership can guide people towards a better way of doing things.


A fuller version of this article is available in:

Black S.A. (2014) Can we engineer an exponential growth in conservation impact? Solitaire 25: 3-5. Durrell Conservation Academy, Jersey. ISSN 2053-1087.


Other reading:

Game, E.T., Meijaard, E., Sheil, D., McDonald-Madden, E. (2013). Conservation in a wicked complex world; challenges and solutions. Conservation Letters 7 (3): 271-277

Martin, T. G., S. Nally, A. A. Burbridge, S. Arnall, S. T. Garnett, M.W. Hayward, L. F. Lurnsden, P. Menkhorst, E. McDonald-Madden, and Possingham, H. P. (2012) Acting fast helps avoid extinction. Conservation Letters 5:274–280.

Tollington, S., Jones, C.G., Greenwood, A., Tatayah, V., Raisin, C., Burke, T., Dawson, D.A., Groombridge, J.J. (2013) Long-term, fine-scale temporal patterns of genetic diversity in the restored Mauritius parakeet reveal genetic impacts of management and associated demographic effects on reintroduction programmes. Biological Conservation 161:28-38.