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Evolution or Revolution? Planning Evolution Team Road Tests Early Recommendations with Peers

Cox, Robin 6/8/2011

The Nature Conservancy staff across the globe are charged with increasing the pace, scale and effectiveness of our conservation investments in increasingly complex socio-economic, ecological and political settings. Our evolving strategic directions and recent planning and analytical innovations compel us to refine our current conservation planning methods.

Toward this end, the Planning Evolution Team (PET), which was formed in late spring 2010, recently convened project and focal area team leads and additional staff representing other key audiences (e.g., operating unit directors, conservation planning coaches, policy experts) in a two-day workshop on March 30-31 in San Antonio, Texas. The group was tasked to peer review and vet emerging PET recommendations. The PET’s primary recommendation is for the Conservancy to develop a single strategic conservation planning framework that builds on, improves and replaces current versions of Conservation Action Planning (CAP), Ecoregional Assessment (ERA) and business planning – over the next two years. This proposed framework – which PET refers to as Conservation Business Planning – is based on a core set of conservation, business planning and adaptive management questions.

Workshop participants were asked to review the preliminary set of core questions, which are designed to be relevant to any conservation strategy or project team, from local to global levels of the Conservancy. With these questions, the PET aims to broaden our conservation planning focus from the methods and tools used (e.g., viability and threat workbooks, Miradi software, portfolio design software, etc.) to the information, logic and evaluations needed to craft effective, leveraged strategies.

While some of the core questions are implicit in current TNC planning applications, they are not answered universally by practitioner teams. By making these questions explicit and applying them at all scales – from local and regional land and seascapes to cross-cutting initiatives and global challenges – the PET believes the Conservancy can dramatically improve conservation outcomes. Teams can use a variety of analytical approaches to answer the questions, from simple to sophisticated, depending on team capacity, culture, urgency, partner needs, donor expectations and other situational factors.

Many significant improvements to existing strategic planning methods (CAP, ERA and business planning) are embedded in the proposed Conservation Business Planning questions. Key improvements include:

  • Definition of the planning context before the plan is developed to determine why the plan is needed, how it fits into broader strategic initiatives, who the audience is for the plan, and what decisions will be made based on the plan.
  • Greater emphasis on linking strategies to ultimate conservation outcomes (focus on the end, not just the means).
  • Consideration of multiple-objectives that include ecosystem services, human-well being or other sectoral interests.
  • Greater emphasis on understanding the function of human social, economic and cultural systems and their interplay with the natural systems we seek to conserve.
  • Comparison between potential strategies, including thorough assessment of benefits, costs and risks.
  • Integration of spatial (ecoregional assessments) and strategic planning (conservation action planning, business planning).
  • Greater emphasis on disseminating and amplifying our successes and lessons learned, which will be all the more important as the organization takes on the larger challenges articulated in Global Challenges, Global Solutions (TNC’s new strategic direction – document coming soon).  

Key feedback we heard from workshop participants included the following:

  • Workshop attendees felt that the framing questions provide a strong, unified planning foundation that resonates not only with those traditionally engaged in planning at TNC, but also with senior managers, leadership and policy staff. To be implemented effectively, the questions will need to be accompanied by guidance, a range of examples and additional testing.
  • Participants emphasized that our existing planning paradigms are structured around a world that changes more slowly than today and that the new framework needs to strengthen our ability to generate strategies in the face of massive uncertainty, rapid change and fierce competition.
  • Conservation teams throughout the organization are developing new planning tools to meet the demands of today’s conservation challenges (e.g. marine spatial planning, Energy by Design, etc.). All agreed that these innovations should be added to an expanded toolbox of planning applications, with guidance and training for their use.
  • Some participants expressed concern that the absence of ecological terminology in the questions (such as viability or ecological models), coupled with the organization’s new strategic emphasis on human well-being, could dilute our expertise in ecological systems, which is an important part of our trademark, mission and Conservation by Design.
  • TNC is preparing strategic or business plans at multiple levels across the organization for global teams, regional strategies, landscape projects and smaller sites. It will be important to manage future planning mandates and expectations to minimize the planning fatigue that plagues many practitioners.
  • While new approaches to planning and adaptive management are needed, they need to be accompanied by greater engagement and accountability of directors and managers in the planning process and overall improvements in plan implementation.
  • Important relationships have been built around the existing CAP brand (also known as the ‘Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation’) such as the Conservation Coaches Network and Conservation Measures Partnership. The Conservancy must engage strategically and thoughtfully, seeking input from and collaborating with these key partners as part of evolving to a new conservation planning framework and approach.
  • For the new planning approach to “stick,” participants recommended a program of formal pilot projects designed to yield “real-world, bottom-up” reality testing, much like the organization did during the transition to ecoregional planning.  

The team is honing its draft recommendations and will submit them to the Executive Team in June and make them available to all staff for review and comment through the science chronicles and the Gateway. Stay tuned and prepare to weigh in.

Robin Cox, member, PET team