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Planning for Tomorrow’s Conservation Challenges: Recommendations of TNC’s Planning Evolution Team

Game, Eddie; Groves, Craig 9/13/2011

The Nature Conservancy is widely recognized for its systematic approach to conservation. Conservation Action Planning (or CAP, the Conservancy’s version of strategic planning); Ecoregional Assessments (ERAs); global habitat assessments; and the organization-wide effort to measure the effectiveness of our conservation work are hallmarks of this approach. While these planning and adaptive management methods have served the organization well, both conservation and the Conservancy have changed dramatically over the past 15 years. The rapid pace of environmental change, our focus on whole systems with emphasis on ecological process and ecosystem services, and the need to strengthen the linkage between human well-being and ecological systems are illustrative of many new challenges we face.

To meet these challenges and maintain our position as an industry leader in strategic conservation action and adaptive management, it is essential that we evolve and improve our conservation approach. The Conservancy’s Executive Team commissioned the Planning Evolution Team (PET) to do just that — evaluate our existing approach and make recommendations for its improvement.

 Members of the Planning Evolution Team include: Craig Groves & Edward Game (co-leads, TNC); Lise Hanners, Robin Cox, Jeff Hardesty, Andrew Soles, Kirsten Evans, Anita Diederichsen, Silvia Benitez, Gwynn Crichton, Randy Hagenstein, Zach Ferdana & Peter Ericson (TNC); Heather Tallis (Natural Capital Project); and Erik Meijaard (P&N Consulting Indonesia). 

Over the last year, the PET — a geographically and programmatically diverse group of Conservancy and external staff — interviewed more than 100 Conservancy staff to evaluate our current approach; researched the latest methods and tools on strategic, business, and conservation planning; and identified many innovations inside and outside the Conservancy that could contribute to an improved conservation approach.

We used three guiding principles in this effort:

  1. Identify, disseminate and catalyze current best practices in conservation planning across the Conservancy and its partners.
  2. Embrace a more flexible, toolbox approach to conservation planning while maintaining the ability to communicate effectively about the process and results from this planning.
  3. Bring greater rigor to planning without making it more time-consuming and complicated.

The PET has just released a final report containing our recommendations, which can be downloaded here (by TNC staff). In this report, we outline our principal recommendations, provide justification for the recommended changes, identify examples of projects that are implementing these recommendations, highlight methods or applications that are essential to evolving our conservation approach, and suggest improvements in project management that are fundamental to successful implementation of our collective recommendations.

Innovative and cutting-edge conservation planning occurs across the Conservancy. The PET was always conscious of recognizing and building off this strength, and some teams reading these recommendations will see in them an evolution of their current practices. In nearly all cases, the PET drew from ongoing work in Conservancy field programs. However, a number of these recommendations do represent significant changes from business-as-usual planning in the Conservancy.

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Read the article in full or jump to a particular section using the links below:
Recommendation #1: Enhance the Selection and Development of Strategies.

Recommendation #2: Develop a Single, Integrated Planning Approach: Conservation Business Planning.
Recommendation #3: Mainstream Multi-objective Planning.
Recommendation #4: Integrate Spatial and Strategic Planning.
Recommendation #5: Improve Plan Implementation.
Recommendation #6: Aim for Greater Rigor Without Greater Investment in Planning.
What Do these Recommendations Mean for You?
Advancing the Recommendations of the Planning Evolution Team
Frequently Asked Questions

Recommendation #1: Enhance the Selection and Development of Strategies. Much of the energy of conservation planning has been focused on identifying conservation targets and threats. Planning fatigue often sets in before teams develop strategies and actions — and as a result, what is arguably the most important component of planning receives short shrift. We need to pay more attention to the process and tools for selecting and developing good strategies. We can accomplish this by placing a greater emphasis on linking strategies to ultimate outcomes (ends, not means); thoughtfully comparing potential strategies; and thoroughly assessing the costs and risks of alternate interventions.

Justification: Strategy development and selection are probably the weakest components of our existing conservation approach, and yet these decisions are critically important to how we spend our dollars and whether we achieve our mission. Interviews with Conservancy staff consistently revealed that strategy selection is often opaque, biased towards traditional approaches, accomplished without sufficient engagement of policy, economic and other implementation experts, and opportunistic. Creative, costeffective strategies are needed if we are to meet today’s conservation challenges and rise to the priorities of the Global Challenges/Global Solutions framework. The confidence and freedom to develop and explore such strategies requires a strategic planning and decision-making system that is transparent, explicit about risk, and realistic about costs. Without major enhancements to the tools and process of strategy selection, it will remain difficult for the Conservancy to escape current limitations in determining how we work.
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Recommendation #2: Develop a Single, Integrated Planning Approach: Conservation Business Planning. The Conservancy should develop and adopt a single, flexible strategic conservation planning framework that would build on but ultimately replace current versions of CAP, ERAs and business planning over the next 2 years. This framework — which we refer to as Conservation Business Planning — would be based around a common set of conservation, business planning and adaptive management questions, a version of which the PET has proposed, tested and peer reviewed (see Roadmap Figure in the Science Chronicles, page 12). Numerous planning tools, including those we currently use, can help provide answers to these questions, but the Conservancy should look to develop and support a set of made-for-purpose tools, especially for weak areas such as assessing costs and benefits of strategies and multi-objective planning. A revised approach to conservation planning should be applicable and applied to the full range of planning situations in the Conservancy, from traditional landscape, seascape, and watershed work to larger-scale policy strategies and global challenges.

Reduced confusion: The Conservancy engages in many different forms of planning— from CAPs to ERAs, business plans, and Operating Unit (OU) strategic plans. For many of our field programs, this diversity of plan types is confusing and their application has become inefficient. We can largely deliver the same basic information with different points of emphasis for different audiences through a single planning process.

Broader engagement in planning: We believe that Conservation Business Planning will better engage a variety of audiences that have not regularly participated in planning (e.g., the Conservancy’s government relations and philanthropy staff as well as its senior managers) through application of planning to a greater variety of situations, avoiding the tendency to get too bogged down in ecological considerations early in the planning process, and identifying a clear place for input from a diversity of disciplines.

Greater flexibility: Because project teams with different skills and capacities face different socioecological contexts and myriad challenges, we need to encourage the use of the most appropriate tools for the job. Although some tools within CAP and ERA methods will remain useful for answering some of the core questions outlined in the PET recommendations, a planning framework based on these core questions will enable flexibility in our toolkit while we retain the strength of speaking a common language and being recognized as a strategic organization.

Assessment of costs and benefits: Planning in the Conservancy has not been consistent in integrating information on the cost, benefits and risks associated with our strategic choices. This new planning framework creates the expectation that teams capture and use these important pieces of information.
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Recommendation #3: Mainstream Multi-objective Planning. The Conservancy should adapt its core planning approach to more consistently accommodate multiple objectives (e.g., objectives relating to ecosystem services, human well-being, or other sectoral interests in addition to our traditional biodiversity objectives). This accommodation requires (a) a planning approach and tools that enable exploration of trade-offs between objectives, and (b) a greater use of scenario analysis to evaluate alternatives.

Justification: Because the Conservancy increasingly works with various sectors of society (e.g., the energy or fishing industry) at a landscape-seascape or greater scale, it will take on many more projects that do involve both biodiversity objectives and additional objectives related to human use of natural resources. Our present planning methods were designed with an intentional focus on biodiversity and are not sufficiently structured to transparently weigh or evaluate other objectives. Some great evolution has
already happened in this regard — for instance, the adaptation of Ecoregional Assessment methods to Marine Spatial Planning or Development by Design — but there is still demand for more of our planning to explicitly acknowledge and incorporate the fundamental objectives of our partners and other stakeholders. New approaches such as Development by Design or new tools like multi-criteria decision analysis don’t assume that we are adopting the objectives of others, but instead enable us and our partners to jointly explore scenarios that deliver on a range of conservation and human-use objectives.
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Recommendation #4: Integrate Spatial and Strategic Planning. The Conservancy should adapt its core planning approach to integrate spatial (e.g., Ecoregional Assessment) and strategic planning (e.g., CAP), rather than conduct them as separate exercises.

Justification: From land protection to shellfish restoration to managing for sustainable ecological flows, the Conservancy employs a diversity of strategies to achieve its mission, and suitable places to deploy these strategies will not overlap perfectly with traditional portfolio sites from ERAs. Strategic action and place cannot be separated — so planning for them independently is inefficient. Most contemporary regional planning efforts or spatial prioritizations (ERAs are one type of such prioritization) incorporate strategy development in the planning process — while at the same time CAP is increasingly being used at a scale where a spatial understanding of targets, threats and enabling conditions is essential. Integrating spatial and strategic planning into a single planning framework will lead to more efficiency in aligning places with strategies.
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Recommendation #5: Improve Plan Implementation. Even when the Conservancy excels at planning, implementation of those plans often falls short. Four courses of action will significantly improve implementation and lead to better conservation outcomes:

  • First, greater attention should be paid to the planning context before a plan is initiated — why is the plan needed, how does it fit into broader strategic initiatives, who is the audience for the plan, what is its scope, what decisions will be made from the plan, and who will make those decisions.
  • Second, project directors and other senior conservation leaders must be moreengaged in leading and managing strategic planning processes to better connect these efforts to good management decisions.
  • Third, the implementation of a project’s strategic plan must be wholly integrated into the strategic and annual operating plan of Conservancy OUs.
  • Finally, greater attention must be given to financial analyses related to both the costs and the feasibility of raising the necessary funds to move a project forward.

Justification: No state-of-the-art planning methods and tools will improve conservation if the resulting plans are not implemented. Too many plans in the Conservancy have been developed as a rote exercise to fill a perceived Conservation by Design mandate, with not enough thought given to which questions the plan was intended to answer and who needed to know the answers to those questions. At the same time, planning — whether through CAPs or ERAs — has too often been viewed as a “science exercise,” primarily the responsibility of conservation scientists and planners. Quite to the contrary, decisions about where the Conservancy is going to work and the strategies it will use are the foundation of sound project management and must have greater engagement and leadership by project and senior managers to engender the buyin that is necessary for implementation and allocation of necessary resources. Strategic and annual operating plans of Conservancy OUs are more often the vehicle for directing what actually gets done in a program — and without better integration of conservation plans to OU, regional, and global team strategic plans, implementation is likely to continue to fall short.

Recommendation #6: Aim for Greater Rigor Without Greater Investment in Planning. Improving planning does not mean doing more planning — it means doing it more efficiently, doing more appropriate planning, and improving its quality. Efficiency can be gained by ensuring that the purpose and context for planning are clear (see Recommendation #5); limiting overlap in planning efforts; investing more intensive effort in plan development over shorter durations; and improving management of the planning process. Preliminary suggestions about the most important criteria to consider when making decisions on investments in planning include: likelihood for replication and leverage for selected strategies, financial and reputational risk, uncertainty of strategies, complexity of the planning context, and the anticipated longevity of the resulting decision.

Justification: Any conversation about planning in the Conservancy would be incomplete without some mention of “planning fatigue.” The PET was routinely advised that any recommendations for improving planning had to be made within the context
that many program staff are “planning weary.” More investment in planning than is needed is a significant waste of resources, and it negatively impacts the perceived value of future planning efforts. To that end, we can be smarter about the investments we make in planning.
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What Do these Recommendations Mean for You?

Senior Managers: This planning approach addresses a set of core questions for which the Conservancy’s senior managers as well as project directors and other senior OU leaders need answers. Senior managers have a greater role to play to ensure that planning and peer review processes are better managed, that plans address a core set of questions that the PET is recommending, that investments in planning are scaled appropriately to the needs of individual projects and strategies, and that implementation of conservation plans is part and parcel of OU strategic and annual operating plans. One integrated planning process that merges CAP (strategic planning), ERAs and business planning should simplify matters and be appealing to a diversity of staff interests, from planning and science to management and philanthropy.

Project and Program Directors: Our recommendations specifically ask many of you to take a greater responsibility in leading and managing strategic planning processes and in helping ensure that we improve implementation. This request does not imply that you should spend the bulk of your time leading planning efforts — only that you serve as the leader and manager of the process, helping ensure its relevance, transparency, accountability and, ultimately, its effectiveness.

Conservation Scientists, Planners and Coaches: This group will be critical to fully integrating these recommendations into the work of conservation teams. While recognizing that many Conservancy scientists, planners and coaches are pioneers of new methods and processes that the PET is recommending more broadly, these changes will mean that you will be learning, designing and mastering more tools in an expanding toolbox (e.g., Return on Investment, Scenario Analyses). After these recommendations are carefully vetted, building on your experiences to harvest, develop and test new tools will be an ongoing process, and providing guidance and training will be a continuing effort that this group will need to support.

Philanthropy Staff: Information on conservation outcomes, strategies used to reach outcomes, and measures for evaluating whether the strategies are working are critical components of many proposals and reports to donors. Our recommendations as well as those in the most recent Measures Business Plan should make this information more transparent and available to you as outputs of any strategic planning process, and hopefully make your job easier as well. And a greater emphasis during planning on thoroughly understanding both the expected costs of a strategy and our ability to raise those resources makes your input during planning increasingly important.

Government Relations & External Affairs Staff: The emphasis on leverage, replication and opportunity implies that more of the Conservancy’s future strategies and actions will be increasingly policy-oriented. Unlike traditional place-based projects, policy interventions have not generally been subject to the rigors of strategic planning. We envision an increased engagement by GR and XA staff in which the risks, assumptions, costs and benefits of alternate policy strategies are carefully evaluated.

Conservation Strategy and Learning Team (Conservation Programs) and Conservation Methods Team (Central Science): The bulk of responsibility for a) developing improved planning guidance, b) developing and supporting a limited set of new planning applications and tools, and c) supplying ample examples where these tools apply will fall to these two teams. You will have your work cut out for you in FY12 and 13!
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Advancing the Recommendations of the Planning Evolution Team

Implementing these recommendations will be a journey, not something that should or will occur overnight. To successfully start this journey, several important steps should be taken in FY12:

  • Although the PET received some review of its preliminary recommendations through a workshop that included a cross-section of Conservancy staff in April 2011, additional peer review is needed with field program staff to improve our products and build broader support.
  • New planning approaches (e.g., evaluating alternate strategies) need to be field tested with real Conservancy field projects or strategies.
  • Additional methods and tools will be added to the conservation planning toolbox in FY12 — for example, Return on Investment tools, expert elicitation tools, or social science methods. Over time, the toolbox will grow as innovative methods from inside and outside the Conservancy are added.
  • In FY12, the transitional "Interim Conservation Planning Guidance" (issued by the Conservation Strategies and Learning Team in Spring 2011) will be updated and expanded to address the whole suite of PET core questions and recommendations. This expansion will be phased in over 2 years, with the majority completed in FY12, to be replaced by the new “Conservation Business Planning” framework in FY13.
  • The Conservation Measures Partnership’s (CMP) Open Standards for the Practice of Conservation is scheduled to be revised in FY12. As a charter member of the CMP, the Conservancy will be working alongside our partners to undertake this revision. The PET recommendations should make a useful contribution to the revision of the Open Standards.
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Frequently Asked Questions

Q: Do these recommendations imply that all conservation projects need to update their conservation plans based on the core planning questions and Interim Conservation Planning Guidance?
A: No, plans should be updated when there is sufficient new information to suggest changes in strategy, such as substantive change in programmatic direction and desired outcome or if project directors or senior conservation leaders believe that a conservation plan is substantially deficient in an important area (e.g., measures, fundraising analysis, theory of change). Such deficiencies may come to light through management or peer review of conservation project plans. The primary focus of PET recommendations is for new projects or projects that do not have an adequate conservation business plan in place.

Q: Have the PET recommendations incorporated the ideas of whole system conservation as outlined in the recent TNC North America Report: Stepping up to the Challenge: A Concept Paper on Whole System Conservation (Science Chronicles, July 2011)?
A: Yes, the whole system concept emphasizes the larger spatial scales at which the Conservancy is working, including the matrix of lands and waters between conservation areas as well as an increased emphasis on the needs of people. Two of our recommendations specifically support these aspects of whole system conservation — mainstreaming multi-objective planning (including the needs of people from other sectors of society beyond conservation) and integrating spatial (ERAs) and strategic planning (CAP). The latter point on integration is recognition that, at larger spatial scales, we need to be setting spatial priorities for conservation and developing strategy
simultaneously, as place-based priorities and strategy are inherently related.

Q: Have the PET recommendations considered the new mission, vision, goal and conservation priorities (Global Challenges/Global Solutions) being proposed by the Conservancy’s executive team and senior managers?
A: Yes, the PET has stayed abreast of the ongoing organizational discussions on these topics, but the need for an updated planning approach predates the discussions about a new mission, goal, vision and priorities and is not in any way dependent on the final outcome of those discussions. That being said, the PET recommendation to emphasize multi-objective planning, including objectives of other sectors of society, directly supports the proposed new language in the mission and vision statements related to “making people count.” In addition, all of the PET recommendations should better enable Conservancy practitioners to develop effective strategic plans that emphasize conserving biodiversity targets, solving major global conservation problems (i.e., the four Global Challenges), or both.

Q: What is the relationship, if any, between the PET recommendations and the recommendations of the Measures Business Plan?
A: The Conservation Approach of the Conservancy has four major components (see Conservation by Design) — setting priorities, developing strategies, taking action, measuring results. The vast majority of PET recommendations refer to the first two components of this approach (priorities and strategies). The core questions that we have developed that form the basis of Recommendation #2 are related to the entire conservation approach — that is to say, they include questions about planning but also about adaptive management (taking action and measuring results). The Measures Business Plan is an organization-wide initiative to improve the Conservancy’s ability to evaluate the effectiveness of our conservation strategies and actions. As such, it is focused on the fourth component of the conservation approach — measuring results. Taken together, the actions outlined in the Measures Business Plan and the PET
recommendations will improve our strategic planning efforts and better enable us to adaptively manage our conservation projects and global-regional strategies.

Q: Will we still update or do new Ecoregional Assessments?
A: Certainly, OUs that have a need or reason to update an existing ERA will do so. If ERA teams had not considered strategies to conserve portfolios of sites, it would be worthwhile to do so in any revision, as that consideration should influence not only the selection of conservation areas but also their relative priority for conservation action. Given the priorities outlined in the Global Challenges/Global Solutions framework, new ERAs might not be warranted unless the Conservancy is entering a new geography in which there is limited information on place-based priorities. Even in this situation, we would advise that any such planning effort should address the questions outlined in Recommendation #2 — a single conservation planning framework.
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Image: The Urban Design Plan for the Comprehensive Plan of San Francisco. Image credit: Eric Fischer/Flickr.