Updated: Feb 17, 2021
I've worked on multiple conservation projects in my 10+ year career, but time and time again I see the same pattern arising when working with project teams. And in truth, I've been guilty of it myself. This common pothole is what I like to refer to as 'the bird trap' (a.k.a the problem you didn't know you had).
The bird trap
Indulge me a little here. Most people are probably familiar with the ostrich analogy - the bird with its head in the sand. I have come across very few people working in wildlife conservation who suffer from this problem (although they do exist).
But I like to take this analogy a little further - to the dabbling ducks (testing the water) and those people who are able to take a step back and see their wider project aims - the larks if you will. This tends to represent most of us conservationists but, it can be a trap.
You see, larks can fly high, they even enjoy doing so but they are tied to one spot. So while a lark thinks that it's looking at the 'bigger picture', it rarely questions its one absolute focus. The real way to get out of this mindset (a.k.a the 'bird trap') is to soar - to see the lay of the land and your environment, it is to become the eagle.
What's wrong with larks?
Enough of the bird metaphors. The above perhaps draws a picture of how this way of thinking occurs, and it is incredibly common. And the reason that this 'bird trap' is a problem for project delivery is because it can very often mean that it can distract teams from wider (and often influential) problems that may be inadvertently limiting your project's success.
That's not to say what you're working on is wrong; it's so often right. People working on issues day-to-day even become the ultimate experts, but it may simply mean that you're effectively ignoring other opportunities that could make you even more successful.
The nightingale project
As an example of this, imagine you manage a nightingale conservation project in Luther-King Woods. You ultimately want to bring nightingale numbers back to what they were in your childhood and you dream of hearing them loudly sing as you walk slowly through the woods one night. Your project to improve breeding success has been going strong for five years and 20 fledglings have hatched so far (compared to a baseline of two in 2015).
So that's great and all's well, right? However the team has been so focused on boosting fledgling numbers they've failed to notice that none of the fledglings are breeding themselves because although some have returned (and even sang), by the time they could have attracted a mate in year two, they've all been hunted out during their winter migration. At this rate, you'll never get to have that moonlight stroll...
So you can see that the actual impact of all that work (and the monetary investment) is limited (which is a shame because there's a charity working hunting songbirds in the Mediterranean who could help).
How to become an eagle
The Nightingale project described above is a simple example, and in truth, most conservationists would pick this up, but other problems affecting your project can be more nuanced and complex. It's surprising how often projects can leapfrog a really critical problem simply by not thinking about the wider context.
I've come across the nightingale scenario multiple times working on conservation projects and that is why taking time out now and again to 'be the eagle' is so important.
Speaking from experience, I know that as a project manager that you can often be so invested in what you're doing and so engrossed in the day-to-day operation, that it can be hard to gain that 'fresh perspective', or even prioritise important time for reflection and review.
Does this sound like someone you know? This probably happens in every organisation across the world but the good news is that it's easy to change. It simply requires an extra step back to think about the context in which your project sits; geographically, ecologically and even socially.
But I know what you're thinking. All of this sounds like a lot of unnecessary work and if there's one thing you're short of, it's time.
I get it, I've been there. Project and land management rarely leaves you with time to twiddle your thumbs but, for an investment of one day of your team's time, you really can significantly increase the impact that your project has on the ground, as well as your external relationships.
However, if your time is absolutely limited right now, I give some advice at the end of this blog on how to identify your critical issues in just 20 minutes.
Finding your critical issue
The way I like to 'become the eagle' is to use a process commonly known as theory of change. Creating a theory of change for your project is the first stop to make sure that you're addressing the most important problems effecting your species or habitat. I explain what theory of change is in this short video so you can check that out if you want to find out more about it.
As a first step, rather than going into a straight consultation with every stakeholder you know, you might want to try sketching out a mini theory of change (a.k.a a project plan) in your notebook over the next 20 minutes.
To do this, imagine your own picture of what the project looks like in 20 years. This is your 'vision'. After that simply write down why that vision doesn't already exist. What are the things stopping this vision from being already so? The issues you identify may overlap with things you already know and work on, but try to dig deeper and perhaps 'fly a little higher'. Think about the ecology of your target species or habitat, the wider landscape and the people in it. How might all these factors currently be stopping your vision?
This approach should help you identify that 'critical issue'; the key problem that has a major influence on your project but at the moment is left unaddressed. This doesn't necessarily mean you should work on it (and there may be good reasons why you don't already) but it might help you branch out, collaborate and act to ultimately increase your conservation impact.
If you tried this approach please do let me know - I'd love to hear your thoughts on how you found it. Also please do feel free to ask me further questions by contacting me here or on Twitter.