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After failure, reflection: effective conservation requires regular assessments (commentary)

  • 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.

Conservationists in the field must often make quick decisions based on whatever evidence is available, but reflecting on those decisions later can be key to future success. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher for WCS.

The study identified four key barriers to talking about and learning from failure:

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.

Example 1: A poultry producers card game

To help families learn about poultry production, Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) developed a low-tech game designed to build the skills and experience that families need to raise chickens. WCS teams tested the card game with several communities. Everyone who played the game loved it and said they learned a lot about backyard poultry production by playing. In fact, communities asked WCS “can we keep the cards so we can play the game when you are not here.”

The game was a success and the WCS team clearly knew this. But the team still wanted to get together and talk about the game. So they did. This is an example of a Pause and Reflect session not driven by failure but by success. The team wanted to understand why it worked so well and if the game could be made even better.

Through Reflection the team were truly happy that the game was a “hit” with all communities but they thought that the rules and the cards did not accurately reflect what poultry producers actually faced. So, they decided that the successful game still could be made better with a few tweaks.

Pause and Reflect is not only about fixing failure, it can be about making successful projects even better.

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.

See related: Failure in conservation projects: Everyone experiences it, few record it

When in the field, teams have to act fast to changing conditions but can benefit from pausing later to reflect. Photo by Julie Larsen Maher for WCS.
Example 2: Free, Prior and Informed Consent

WCS has been working with local communities to help them to establish their own community forest concessions enabled by a new law enacted by a parliament. Part of that effort is putting in place a Free Prior and Informed Consent process to ensure that communities understand what they are agreeing to and what rights they have. Our field teams worked hard to build trusting relationships with several local communities and to come to mutual understanding of what the community and WCS hoped to achieve together. That process also included raising community awareness of their rights to consent to, or object to (i.e., withhold consent to) any activity proposed by WCS.

Recently, WCS received a letter from one community that stated that they were formally withholding consent to work with us. The WCS team was devastated by the news. A meeting was quickly convened to discuss the issues.

The team initially focused on what they had done wrong to cause the community to send the letter. As the discussion continued, the team realized that the letter indicated not an abject failure, but a success, manifest by a failure.

The community had told the team that they were concerned that they were increasingly unable to provide their children with good food – i.e., meals with meat. WCS replied that we could help with small livestock production. The community agreed (i.e., consented) that this was a good idea. A survey conducted with the community showed that everyone ate the fatty larvae (grubs) of palm weevils – in fact, people really liked them. So WCS asked a small NGO to train the community how to raise palm grubs rather than simply collect them from the wild. But the community was expecting help with poultry production and did not see raising palm grubs as the same thing. So they wrote a letter, based on their accurate understanding of FPIC, withdrawing consent to work with WCS.

The WCS team realized they had failed to communicate appropriately with the community about the palm grub production training, but had, at the same time, succeeded in implementing an FPIC process where the community clearly understood their rights – two things that would not have been evident to the team without a formal Pause and Reflect session.

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: 

Failure in conservation projects: Everyone experiences it, few record it