Constructive Criticism in Conservation Management Techniques

lawrence ball conservation

Improving management systems and techniques has always been a key agenda throughout all industries to improve efficiency of outcomes, increase profit and minimise downfalls. In many stable industries, those with little change in demands, pressures and objectives, a command and control management system is often highly effective. Unfortunately, in the business of biodiversity conservation we are controlled by the demands of nature, with ever-changing, unpredictable pressures, and so a variety of objectives that need to be met. In conservation these objectives should be changing as projects begin the process of planning, researching, implementing and monitoring, however, the management systems used often fail to manage this change. A McKinsey and Company research project (1996-97) found that 80% of business failures to manage change could be traced to 13 common errors, for example, failure to experiment or lack of skills and resources. 

Although in many cases our understanding of the ecological aspects of biodiversity conservation is sufficient, our knowledge of how to implement policies and management techniques that can prevent biodiversity loss is still in its youth; resting primarily on what we can learn from case-study narratives. 

One of the main problems with the use of command and control management in conservation is the lack of flexibility in project objectives over time. This is due to uniformed decision making and a lack of communication between people on the ground and the decision makers. The objectives set are often too long term and can overlook important short term management decisions that need to be made to enhance the success of the project. Many other factors such as strict procedures, selfish bureaucracy and a lack of sound scientific knowledge can lead to rigid inaccurate project plans that cannot adapt despite uncertainty and change.

Observing and understanding examples of failed conservation projects and the management behind them can help to improve conservation management techniques. Instead of covering up conservation failures we should understand the reasons for the failures and share this knowledge. Further, we should share success stories in conservation management, as it is a new business with constantly changing pressures, and we will not learn to improve biodiversity conservation without the knowledge of how to manage a project appropriately.

So why has it taken so long to realise we need to change how we manage conservation projects?

I believe the reason can partly be explained by our own downfalls as Homo sapiens (‘tragedy of the commons’ – I say no more) which has led us to become dependant on command and control management throughout the developed world. It seems the fact that we have noticed a malfunctioning of command and control management in conservation, and in many cases leading to a loss of valuable biodiversity, we have been required to come up with new management strategies. In short, maybe we needed a system to fail so we could criticise, learn and improve, to produce a more effective management system for biodiversity conservation.

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