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.

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.