Reflection and Learning from Failure in Conservation Organizations: A Report for the Failure Factors Initiative
Luca Guadagno; Brett M. Vecchiarelli; Heidi Kretser; David Wilkie
Evidence of success is the holy grail sought by teachers, health care providers, engineers, relief organizations, conservation NGOs, policy makers, and funders. All have the same wish—just let me know what works and I will replicate that. Evidence for conservation decision making comes in many forms, from reams of information, collected using well-defined and rigorous protocols, that are analyzed using quantitative methods to semi-informed individual assessments of intervention efficacy. The former, though essential, is both expensive and time consuming to generate; the latter often provides minimal insights to benefit future work. More importantly, in all cases, if the results do not support the hypothesis (i.e., the project was not a success) they rarely get published. A recent post on Mongabay noted that “the problem with focusing so much on unearthing positive or affirmative evidence is that we humans often learn more from our failures than from our successes.” When we follow a recipe and the result is a delicious dinner, we never stop to think, “Wow, why did that work so well?” But when we cook something that is almost inedible, we dissect our cooking process to detect why we failed to achieve what the recipe promised. If humans learn more from things that do not work as expected, and if gathering rigorously collected and analyzed data is costly and may not generate actionable information at a time-frame useful for conservation decision making and adaptive management, what alternative evidence generation options are available that are quick, cheap, and credible? This working paper reports the results of interviews with 15 conservation NGOs and their supporters to assess the current and potential use of a team evidence sharing mechanism named “Pause and Reflect” (a.k.a. “After Action Reviews”). This learning approach is systematically deployed by the military, ambulance and emergency room staff, and aviation engineers, but is only recently being tested within the conservation community. Pause and Reflect sessions allow teams to facilitate the timely surfacing of information about which workday tasks and activities are and are not working and what might be changed to more effectively implement actions to achieve desired outcomes. Results of this preliminary study suggest that reflection can both diagnose and remedy the causes of an evident failure and surface issues that, if addressed, could prevent failure. The process of team reflection is enormously valuable to team members and leads to useful learning and rapid cycle adaptive management. The study suggests that few people have the time or inclination to read numerous “lessons learned reports,” but the process of team reflection is critical for staff who participate in it. In other words, organizational learning is most likely to happen as the sum of individual learning and reflection, rather than a few experts making recommendations for others to learn. When serious failures do arise, teams that regularly practice reflection in low-stakes situations often report being better equipped to handle reflection in high-stakes scenarios. The study identifies four barriers to learning from failure within conservation organizations. These include: • Reticence of staff to talk publicly about failure for fear of losing status and funding; • Funding agreements that assume projects progress as planned and thus inadvertently are an impediment to reporting failure because substantial changes to an existing program or project may be bureaucratically difficult; • Decentralization that results in desired deployment of locally appropriate solutions to conservation challenges but results in a plethora of silos and little organization wide learning; and • Few options existing for large organizations to capture and share lessons that do not incur high transaction costs. The study highlights that Pause and Reflect sessions are most effective when they are structured around a core set of questions such as: • What was expected to happen? • What actually occurred? • What went well and why? • What can be improved and how? Results of the study also offer a set of actions that organizations can take to provide a safe space for their staff and teams to learn from what is not working as well as expected. These include: • Establish norms around the timing and expectations of Pause and Reflect sessions; • Respect different perspectives; • Recognize and reduce bias; and • Establish guidelines for psychological safety. Lastly, and mostly importantly, teams need to build the mutual trust to talk openly and honestly about what is working well and what may need to change. This trust is best built before a crisis happens. Holding regular Pause and Reflect sessions when teams are working well and projects are progressing smoothly builds trust and social cohesion within a team. This is essential to conducting an honest, open, and useful Pause and Reflect Session when the s—t has hit the fan.

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