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.

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.

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

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

Never forget this fact: There is no such thing as factual information

Simon Black –

This blog title is provocatively paradoxical. The assumption is that somthething measured is something proved. this is a habit of thinking which we are trained to establish in our minds as scientists.

This is not the case.

In practice, when we decide to define a fact, we then define what it is, how it is to be measured, then measure to verify.

In deciding the measurement, we simply place a judgement – our opinion of reality, onto something that isn’t there. For example:

The label on a blanket reads “50 per cent wool” What does this mean? Half wool, on the average, over this blanket, or half wool over a month’s production? What is half wool? Half by weight? If so, at what humidity? By what method of chemical analysis? How many analyses? The bottom half of the blanket is wool and the top half is something else. Is it 50 per cent wool? Does 50 per cent wool mean that there must be some wool in any random cross-section the size of a half dollar? If so, how many cuts shall be tested? How select them? What criterion must the average satisfy? And how much variation between cuts is permissible? Obviously, the meaning of 50 per cent wool can only be stated in statistical terms (Deming 1975).

Is it now becoming clear?

“Without theory (hypothesis), data are meangingless or nonexistent. There is thus no true value of anything: true value is undefinable operationally. There are, however, numerical values that people can use with confidence if they understand their meaning (for the tensile strength of a batch of wire, for example, or for the proportion of the labor force unemployed last month).” (Deming 1967).

The trick is to understand the meaning of numbers. this is clearly important if we are conudcting a population census (which individuals, where, within what boundaries, at what point in time, by what method of observation, how to record etc.) buit more so when we consider more nebulous things, like the ‘perceptions of local communities’, or ‘support for conservation action’ or the ‘involvement of local partners’.

Not everything that can be counted counts.
Not everything that counts can be counted.

 So the first useful question about somethnig is:

“what do we know about this?”

Think about this next time you set a goal, or measure results…

 Further Reading:

Deming W.E. (1967) Walter A. Shewhart, 1891-1967. The American Statistician, 21(2): 39-40

Deming (1974) On probability as a basis for action. The American Statistician, 29 (4): 146-152

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.