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.

True ‘hands-on’ leadership: what does this really involve?

Simon Black – 

To keep close to work some managers think that by asking about the numbers or looking over people’s shoulders is an effective way to work, but neither is actually helpful (Deming 1993):

  1. Micro management just interferes with work, distracts the people doing the work and often results in meddling, reduction in creativity (people have no point in giving ideas –  because the boss will question it/have their own idea anyway); this reduces trust and motivation.
  2. Asking for ‘the numbers’ (an attempt to show others a results-oriented mindset) merely indicates that you don’t care about the work. Remember, Douglas Adam’s answer to life, the universe and everything was 42, which didn’t really tell us anything helpful. Outcomes are much more that just the numbers (particularly more than just this week’s numbers)

Hands on leadership is NOT micro management. A  hands-on leader understands the work, knows the demands placed on the project, can ask helpful questions that enable people to develop better insight, has conversations that relate to the work and how it can be improved (rather than judging people or playing motivational mind-games). A hands-on leader knows their staff and people’s capabilities, sensitivities and aspirations. The leader also gives away responsibility, ensuring that people have skills, authority and information to enable them to make decisions that help species and ecosystems. A hands-on leader expects to get questions back form the team, including concerns, or ideas for improvement. A hands on leader listens.

Few of these characteristics can be found in micro-managers and those who just ask for the numbers. There is a better way to lead.

  • Orientate towards “hands-on” management, working with staff.
  • Have highly developed biological and/or operational skills .
  • Be able to prioritize the work by asking key questions.
  • Know people’s strengths; channel their energy and passion.
  • Understand cultural differences and handle views sensitively.
  • Check results with staff and empower them to get the job done.
  • Involve people doing the work with data, decisions, and changes.
  • Place responsibility for information with people doing the work.
  • Ensure that ‘what matters to biodiversity’ steers people’s work.
  • Have 2-way communication; clarifying, testing and listening.
  • Spend time with staff, listen to concerns & enable contributions.

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.

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


Other things of interest:

Adams D. (1979) The hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy. New York: Pocket Books

Vision and goals: what is it all about?

Simon Black –

A key area of capability for a leader is to have a strong sense of purpose for the work that they and their team must undertake. Questions like ‘Why are we here?‘, ‘Why are we doing this work?‘ can be answered with a statement of purpose. In conservation it might be something like ‘ to recover and conserve species X’, or ‘to recover and protect landscape Y’, or ‘to restore ecosystem Z’. That purpose must be reasonably within the control of the team; so a purpose defined as follows: ‘to prevent global climate change’ would be unhelpul and difficult to operationalise (so not really worth the paper it is written on).

Durrell is one organisation which has a clear purpose (they call it a mission) “saving species from extinction“. In any work the organisation undertakes, people can legitimately ask – ‘does this work help save species from extinction?’ The assumption is that if the work does not deliver this expectation, it is the wrong work to be doing.

WWF’s mission is “to stop the degradation of the planet’s natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature.” This sets a broad expectation but is perhaps less easy to operationalise (or at least to discriminate what to do and what not to do).

In understanding purpose, we need to help understand the work we do – and to have that understanding which is common across the team. In Durrell there may be debate about which species to save from extinction, but thereafter what to do can be carried out. This type of decision making is perhaps less easy to agree with the WWF mission – there are likely to be a myriad of other criteria which are necessary to prioritise WWF’s work.

FFI describe their mission as “To act to conserve threatened species & ecosystems worldwide, choosing solutions that are sustainable, based on sound science & take into account human needs“. This is clear, but perhaps also includes qualitative criteria worthy of debate – what is ‘sound science’, what should we do if effective conservation can be achieved without science? What if human needs contravene the conservation of species, or drive unsustainability? What if sound scinece is unsustainable? These are legitimate questions.

Vision then builds a view of the future – and this is a move-able feast driven by the context we are working in; HOW we conserve species might involve building a secure captive population far from harms way, but a different vision might have the population restored in its native habitat, another vision might see the population trans-located to a new uninhabited location; it all depends on context. Which vision is most likely to inspire others to engage with the work and which will also ensure the purpose of the work?

With these things in mind a leader can set short-term goals and learn more about the system that is being worked with.

In the Black, Groombridge Jones paper is a description of some areas to consider in developing purpose, vision, goals and plans:

  • Establish shared long-term vision & common sense of purpose.
  • Identify what is happening/affecting biodiversity.
  • Set clear, short-term achievable goals.
  • Ensure flexibility in all levels of planning.
  • Consider view of stakeholders and partners.
  • Start plans by understanding current performance v purpose.
  • Ensure that staff embrace project aims and culture.
  • Get people to measure performance in relation to project aims.
  • Advocate good governance, particularly in complex projects.
  • Ensure congruency between plans, action and results.

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.

Tell me: what’s your purpose?

Simon Black –

To be clear about our work, who (or what) we are serving, how to do the work, how to change, what improvement looks like – we need to be clear about one thing:


Peter Scholtes was one of the clearest writers on this concept; for him, like Deming before, everything starts with purpose;  “Without a purpose there is no system”.

Until we have clarity of purpose, all we are doing is completing sets of tasks. ‘Purpose’ should be embedded in our thinking about work, people and organisations. We should be focused on the needs of the sepcies and ecosystems of concern. If not our goals can easily drag us off-track.

Scholtes offers a very clear analogy to illustrate the importance of purpose:

“Cleaning a table cannot be a system until the purpose of the clean table is made clear. A table clean enough to eat on requires one system of cleaning. Clean enough to dance on requires another. Clean enough to perform surgery on requires yet another. Everything starts with purpose.

“What is your purpose?” is the most useful question one can be asked. 

When thinking this way, conservation work is transformed from being seen as tasks to carry out, to become a reason to do something which adds real value; a framework for making decisions and seeking ways to improve.

Read more:

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

Deming, W. E. (1993) The New Economics for Industry, Government, Education, second edition. MIT CAES, Cambridge MA.

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

Scholtes P.R. (1999) The New Competencies of Leadership, Total Quality Management, 10: 4&5, S704-S710.