- Talking about failed conservation efforts does not happen often enough in ways that promote shared learning within organizations.
- We often learn more from failures than from successes, a fact underscored by the authors of a new report, “Reflection and Learning from Failure in Conservation Organizations.”
- A new op-ed offers examples and argues that if reflection upon failure is used more regularly, it would reduce staff time invested in progress reporting, free up staffers to do what they were hired for, and speed up team learning and adaptive management.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the authors, not necessarily of Mongabay.
Evidence of success has become the holy grail sought by teachers, health care providers, relief organizations, conservation NGOs, policy makers, and foundations. All have the same wish—to either show conclusively that their work leads to desired outcomes, or to know about other approaches that are proven to work so they can be replicated.
However, the problem with focusing only on such affirmative evidence is that we often learn more from failures than from our successes. To turn a popular saying on its head, we would argue that anything worth doing is worth doing poorly. While we can be paralyzed by pressure to succeed, it’s only through learning that we can adapt and continue to improve over time.
The challenge—as uncovered by a recent study published by the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) called “Reflection and Learning from Failure in Conservation Organizations” (and co-authored by two writers of this Mongabay commentary) is that talking publicly about our failures with others turns out to be really hard and unfortunately does not happen often enough in ways that promote shared learning within organizations.
The study identified four key barriers to talking about and learning from failure:
- Reticence of staff to talk publicly about failure for fear of losing respect, status, and support for their work;
- Restrictions by some funders on changes in approved budget line items that inadvertently pose an impediment to reporting failure and adapting work plans over the life of a project;
- Locally appropriate but siloed solutions resulting from decentralization that can prevent lessons from failure being shared more broadly within an organization; and
- Limited motivation of managers swamped with work, who may have little incentive to talk about failure with their teams, especially when they are not getting the message from their leaders that doing so is valuable.
In search for one possible solution to the first and last barriers listed above, the study authors explored the use of Pause and Reflect sessions by teams working for conservation NGOs.
Pause and Reflect is a simple process for teams to meet regularly (or in response to a crisis) and ask themselves what they hoped to achieve, what went well, what not so well, and what adjustments can be made to do better.
Pause and Reflect sessions are used by many different types of organizations. The military all over the world uses Pause and Reflect sessions after every patrol or deployment (they call them After Action Reviews). Hospital emergency room staff use them at the end of each day to talk about what treatments worked best and what treatments could be improved.
It is one of the best ways for teams to learn together, to adapt and improve their work as they learn new things, and to share what they are learning with others.
Team learning through Pause and Reflect discussions can occur as a regularly scheduled part of the team’s work, to discuss day-to-day successes and see if they can be improved, as well as activities that may not be going as planned and may need to change. Special sessions to Pause and Reflect can be implemented after a crisis has happened and urgently needs to be understood and addressed.
The Reflection and Learning study notes that conducting regularly scheduled Pause and Reflect sessions is an essential way for teams to learn the process of frank and open discussion without “blame gaming.” Teams need to practice doing Pause and Reflect sessions while things are going relatively smoothly. This arms them with the skills, capacity, and workplace culture, so that when a crisis has occurred or a serious failure is observed, the team has the experience they will need to Pause and Reflect effectively.
A truly game-changing aspect of Pause and Reflect sessions is that they empower staff who are not in positions of power. Through these sessions, staff can see that their voices are listened to and their ideas acted upon. The sessions help teams work better together when things are going well, help prevent the preventable, and can help understand why things did not work as expected so that these failures are less likely to happen again.
Regularly scheduled, documented, and distilled Pause and Reflect sessions have the potential to increase team learning from both success and failure, with the result that teams work better and more effectively together, generate desired outcomes, and avoid repeating actions shown not to work. This would augment learning from impact evaluation and other quantitative approaches to understanding what conservation approaches work, and which do not.
Moreover, if Pause and Reflect is used in place of some, but not all, technical reporting requirements, it would massively reduce staff time invested in progress reporting, free up staff time to do the work they were hired to do, and speed up team learning and adaptive management. It would likewise provide grant makers with another source of understanding of how their support is working, and how their grantees are learning to work more effectively and avoid failure.
David Wilkie is Senior Technical Advisor to the EVP of Global Conservation, WCS;
Matthew Carr is Director, Strategy, Learning and Evaluation Department, Walton Family Foundation;
Kara Stevens is Senior Strategy Learning and Evaluation Officer, Walton Family Foundation;
Richard Margoluis is Chief Adaptive Management and Evaluation Officer, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation;
and Heidi Kretser is Senior Conservation Social Scientist, WCS Rights + Communities Program.
See related: Mongabay published an entire series on Conservation Effectiveness, here.
Related audio from Mongabay’s podcast: A discussion of the latest edition of the “What Works In Conservation” report released by the Conservation Evidence Group, listen here: