Embracing Failure in Conservation: October 2019 interim blog entry

14th January 2020

The following blog is written by Iain Dickson, Impact Evaluation Officer, BirdLife International (project team member for the CCI Collaborative Fund project ‘Embracing Failure in Conservation’).

To date the project has met the following milestones:

  • Developed a process and template for collecting information on reasons/root causes of failure
  • Solicited >280 anonymous reasons/root causes of failure from participating organisations
  • Convened an expert workshop of CCI partners, external organisations and academics to develop a taxonomy of reasons for failure in conservation based on the examples submitted
  • Established a collaboration with the Conservation Measures Partnership to test approaches and share experience of learning from failure experience

The project has been an immensely engaging experience so far. Particularly interesting discussions have focused around defining what counts as failure, how to solicit examples of failure which provide a meaningful level of detail without compromising anonymity, and on the barriers that need to be overcome before a culture of learning from failure can be established within the conservation sector.

An initial concern was that the project would struggle to solicit a sufficient number of examples or that the examples provided would be highly biased towards certain types of failure (e.g. “heroic failure” where initial failure was overcome resulting in eventual success). However, this has not proved the case with a wide range of examples provided and the testing and review processes have yet to highlight any glaring gaps in the taxonomy.

A key challenge was in working out how to ensure the anonymity of those submitting examples. Both from an ethical perspective and due to concern that people would be less likely to submit cases of failure if information could be used to identify specific individuals/organisations/locations/projects etc. The team therefore decided to submit the project to a review by the University Ethics Council. This process greatly helped to refine the project’s anonymity protocols so that at no point would it be possible for any of those involved in the project (including the project coordinators) to know where a particular example had come from.

The project would have been impossible without effective collaboration and right from its initial conception had found partners keen to collaborate on this topic.

In seeking to develop a comprehensive taxonomy, we hoped to gather examples from a wide range of different types of conservation action and experience. Collaborating across a broad spectrum of partners greatly increased both the quality/quantity of information gathered and the depth of experience we have been able to draw on.

The project has also established a collaboration with the Conservation Measures Partnership (CMP). CMP are also looking at this issue and as part of the collaboration the two initiatives will share outputs and experience to test approaches and develop recommendations and practical actions that conservation teams and organisations to use learning from failure to improve practice.

The project has so far shown that, despite the potentially negative nature of the subject, there is an extremely high level of interest and willingness to engage on the topic of failure in conservation, both within CCI and externally.

By the end of 2019, the project will:

  • Complete a supplementary analysis of the relationships between different types of failure and how they relate to different types of conservation effort
  • The project will finalise and publish the taxonomy and supplementary analysis by the end of the year.
  • At the end of the project, the team will host an event at CCI to bring together relevant organisations, academics and members of the conservation donor community to discuss learning from failure in a positive, constructive way, building on the outputs and experiences of the project.

For more information on the CCI Collaborative Fund project, please visit the project page.