Wednesday, 17 September 2008

Plain management

On a recent flight I was reading a story in the Economist about why certain banks made it safely through the credit crunch, while others suffered badly or didn’t survive at all (No size fits all, August 16th 2008, 11-12). The article concludes that what separates the winners from the losers is not models, but management. In the end, if the people at the top know what they are doing and can convey this convincingly to the rest of the organization, then the organization they lead has a good chance to make progress.

Just that afternoon I’d had a go at TNC’s reliance on models. My critique targeted my pet topic of ecoregional assessments, and how these had failed to be of much assistance in our conservation work in Indonesia relative to the amount spent. My conservation fellows—both former TNC staff—disagreed and maintained that it wasn’t TNC’s ecoregional assessments that were weak, but our inadequate implementation of those plans (read ineffective management).

There’s a lot of truth in that. A good plan in the hands of poor managers will go nowhere. But almost any plan in the hands of a good manager can be used constructively. Why? Because it’s not about the plan itself but the story he or she can tell about that plan, and if that story is good, they can convince anyone. The question then really becomes one of resources. How much funding do we commit to identifying, training, and hiring these super managers—ones that can carry a team, bring about success, and leap tall buildings in a single bound—compared to the money we invest in our plans? A quick and dirty estimate for the Indonesian forest program shows we spend about 5 times more on our top managers than on our planning. Hard to say whether that ratio is too high, just right, or too low because it doesn’t tell us whether the investments in either management or planning were well spent.

Scanning the successes and failures of conservation organizations, I see the ones with the truly inspiring and astute leaders as the ones really making a difference in conservation. The lasting conservation successes that I've witnessed in Indonesia had little to do with prescribed approaches to conservation, planning, or even availability of resources. Success came about when a leader understood the local context of a conservation problem, recognized a solution, and had the guts and stamina to implement it, even in the face of significant opposition. Such qualities are hard to find in one person, and maybe that’s why conservation success in places like Indonesia is so hard to find. Even big banks that probably outpay TNC top management by one or more orders of magnitude, get it wrong. This just shows how hard our job will be to find the right people to lead the organization. But it is a challenge that we have to take on.

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