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Forgotten Elements: Including Structure and Process in Recovery Efforts.


Survival of endangered species requires both the best science can offer and the best human collaboration possible. The focus is often on the former while the latter may be neglected. The authors interviewed coordinators of U.S. endangered species recovery programs involving captive breeding concerning the human dimensions of their programs. The findings show some weaknesses in the use of organizational structures, group processes, leadership and teamwork skills, recognition, and intra and inter-organizational mechanisms to support these programs. The paper presents data from the interviews and discusses these behavioral science concepts. The respondents value the collaborative programs and want more, not less, interaction in the future. They, however, also need help in improving their skills in these `soft' areas.


Many species faced with extinction depend on conservation collaborations in which in situ and ex situ efforts are linked. This means that people from different organizations and very different educational and cultural backgrounds are involved, assisting in a complex effort. For example, the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the American Zoo and Aquarium Association (AZA) have a collaborative partnership, which includes 11 North American and Pacific Rim programs with a Species Survival Plan (SSP). Typically, the zoo community has a coordinator who concentrates on organizing and overseeing the captive breeding of the endangered species while the FWS has a coordinator with overall responsibility for the effort, but with a focus on reintroduction and preservation and expansion of critical habitat.

In theory, the perfect species recovery program should set clear objectives, based on the best available scientific information, develop and implement an Action Plan that is feasible, and reach its goals in a timely cost-effective manner. In practice the "human dimension" (Jacobson and McDuff 1998) creeps into all our activities and often has a negative impact on our ability to define and achieve our conservation goals. Thus, recovery programs for endangered species and habitats may have the best scientific input available, but be unable to effect the change necessary to save the species or the habitat.

The human dimension includes many levels. First is individual behavior, e.g., the leadership skills of a designated coordinator, or the personal agendas and style of particular individuals, that may result in blocked action. Second, a lack of interpersonal skills such as listening and communicating may have a profound impact on progress in a program. At the group level, teamwork--or the lack of it--may facilitate or impede activities related to creating or implementing a recovery plan. This level not only includes interpersonal interactions, but also group decision-making, conflict management, and commitment to the team process. Further, there is an inter-group phenomenon both within and outside a group involved in a species recovery, since many different organizations and stakeholder interests will be represented (Ritvo et al. 1995). The organizational cultures (values, mandates, operating procedures and underlying assumptions) from which team members originate will certainly differ, thus complicating the design and execution of joint activities (Schein 1985). In practice, all of these become the "forgotten elements."

We can, however, reduce the negative impact of the "human dimension" by paying more attention to how recovery programs are structured and the processes used as stakeholders carry out their various activities. We can view the structure as if it were an architectural plan or blueprint--the design of the effort. In this sense structure includes the design of the organization, peoples' roles/functions, including the leadership roles, and the interactions required between and among these roles. Committees and their meeting schedules are part of the structure. Guidelines for how minutes will be kept and distributed are part of the structure. Structure has acquired a somewhat negative reputation in our recognition of the importance of participation, but this can be like the old "throwing the baby out with the bath-water."

"True `freedom' is not the absence of structure--letting the employees go off and do whatever they want--but rather a clear structure which enables people to work within established boundaries in an autonomous and creative way. From the beginning, the ground rules and boundary conditions under which the people are working should be established: what can they decide, what can't they decide? Without structure, groups often flounder unproductively, and the members then conclude they are merely wasting their time" (Kanter 1983).

Structure provides the framework within which we act and the guidance for how to proceed. It sets boundaries for individual and group behavior and limits the degree to which a single personality or agency can control the process or outcome of the group effort. It is like an envelope that contains our actions, and helps to maintain us on a steady course. For a case study of a successful organizational intervention focused on building structures see Moosbruker (1983).

Structure includes agreements and other written documents defining how the various agencies and organizations will interact, e.g. a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU), Cooperative Agreement, and guidelines for the Recovery Teams, including clear definitions of the individual and institutional roles. Another element of the structure could be written criteria for evaluating short-term and long-term progress and for measuring success, that are transparent, consistent and communicated to all stakeholders.

Process summarizes how the group does its work, how individual members interact, how participants communicate, how decisions are made, as distinct from the content or what of the interactions (Schein 1988). The process to be used, for example, in decision-making, can be specified, but how it is carried out is as much art as science. Groups composed of participants from diverse organizational cultures may be especially complex because the interests of the varied agencies may be dissimilar. The leadership style of the group's head is especially critical to its functioning, because, generally, groups go through stages of development from the time of their formation, behave differently at different developmental stages, and usually need help to reach high performance. A leader needs to be sensitive to and adjust his/her behavior during these different stages (Moosbruker 1988).


Using a standardized format, the two authors interviewed 22 FWS and AZA SSP coordinators and other key personnel, e.g., team leaders from the field, by phone. First we calibrated our styles by listening to each other interview and discussing any discrepancies.

We conducted the interviews by telephone because the respondents are scattered throughout North America and the Pacific Rim, making face-to-face contact much too costly. We promised confidentiality to enhance the openness and completeness of the responses. Each interview took between one and two hours, depending on how much the respondent wanted to elaborate. We did not cut people off, but tried to redirect to the questions in our standardized format.

Topics covered in the interviews included:

* structure of the over-all recovery effort;

* processes in use at the small group level;

* role of the leaders and important leadership qualities;

* where the interviewees felt they could use process help/knowledge;

* extent of evaluation and recognition of their work;

* perceived role of each organization in the recovery effort;

* difficulties each group encounters in carrying out their roles;

* degree to which coordinators believe that they are making significant progress towards recovery goals;

* what changes in activities or interactions would enhance success;

* perceived barriers to further and more collaboration, e.g., perceived differences in organizational culture between AZA and FWS.

The topics were chosen to reflect the theory presented above and based on information from the study sponsors in AZA and FWS.



More use could be made of structure in these collaborative partnerships. For example, only three programs have a functional MOU or agreement that covers the FWS and SSP interactions. Only two of 11 programs have a Recovery Team of which the SSP is formally an integral part. In some cases, Recovery Teams had lapsed or were not being used, in part because coordinators believed that the Recovery Team's major function was to write the Recovery Plan.

Just over 50% of interviewees thought that their recovery program had clear objectives; most of the remainder thought that the goals and objectives needed updating. Similarly, only 42% of respondents thought that there was a clear strategy to reach recovery goals.

The roles of the AZA SSP and FWS coordinators in the recovery effort were clear to almost all of the interviewees, with the FWS Coordinator overseeing the entire program, but emphasizing the reintroduction, habitat and field monitoring, while the AZA Coordinator focused on the captive breeding effort. The FWS Coordinator also interfaced with the FWS hierarchy, helped with regulatory issues like obtaining permits, saw that FWS implemented what is specified in the Recovery Plan, acquired land and secured funding for the program. Nearly everyone agreed that FWS is the lead agency in these programs.

Despite the fact that the Coordinators were clear about their own roles, there were only three of 11 programs in which Coordinators felt that the roles of all the different actors were clear. A typical quote from an interviewee: "It is not clear who should be told what because the structure is so confusing."

There are limited objective criteria of success or progress in these programs, except the ultimate de-listing of the species. We compared self-ratings of the teams' over-all success on a five point scale for three major activities: captive breeding, reintroduction and managing the wild population. The programs clearly using the structure of an MOU rated their success on all three dimensions higher than those not using the structure (the sample sizes are small, but the averages were consistently higher for structured programs). The same was true for programs currently utilizing a Recovery Team with an integrated SSP (Table 1).
Table 1. Self-ratings of overall success and program structure;
ratings on a five-point scale. The Ns differ because programs with
"lapsed" recovery teams, non-integrated SSPs, and pending MOUs were
not included. The differentiation was "clear use of this structure"
versus "clearly not using this structure." Due to small Ns,
statistical analysis was not attempted.

MOU Captive Wild
 breeding Reintroduction population N

Yes 4.2 3.7 3.9 3
No 3.3 3.0 2.8 6

Recovery Captive
teams breeding Reintroduction Wild populations

Yes 4.5 4.0 4.0 2
No 4.0 2.8 2.0 5


At the small group level the decision-making processes within the program were clear for about 45% of the respondents. The remainder either thought that decision-making processes were not clear, needed improvement or they did not know. About half the respondents felt that information was shared in a timely fashion. Similarly, half of the respondents thought that people were open with each other at meetings, i.e., being able to talk about it if things were not going well.

Leadership and Training

We asked the interviewees what they thought the three most important qualities of a leader were in this type of recovery program. We consolidated the responses into categories and show the data in Table 2. Only eight of 27 individuals interviewed included scientific and technical expertise in their list of the top three qualities. Working on life or death (for the species) problems brought interpersonal and team skills to the forefront.
Table 2. Perceptions of the team leader's role: What do you think are
the three most important qualities of a leader in this type of
recovery programs?

Quality No. of respondents Comments

Interpersonal 22 Communication, being open,
skills honest, and listening,
 deals well with people

Leadership skills 15 Includes vision, initiative,
 seeing the big picture,
 strategy, clear goals,
 prioritize/make hard
 decisions, conduct meetings
 well, delegation

Team player 14 Inclusiveness, bring people
 together, facilitative
 skills/achieving consensus,
 give credit to others, build
 trust, demonstrate
 confidence in others

Commitment/ 13 Agency commitment: doing the
motivation work

Scientific/ 8

Organizational and 6 Understanding policy,
managerial skills evaluating information

Personal qualities 4 Humility, patience, energy

When asked whether they could use help, i.e. training, in skills related to coordinating a recovery effort, the majority indicated that they could use help. Except for delegating tasks, 50% or more of respondents said they needed help with each of the following skills: running effective meetings, communicating all relevant information in a timely manner, having a good sense of what needs to be done when, motivating the team members to get work done, and facilitating discussions on major issues. Over 75% of respondents indicated that they could use help resolving conflicts, developing the team vs. working one-on-one, and dealing with people when they don't follow through.

This suggests that access to persons with expertise in the applied behavioral sciences, either as a facilitator or as a trainer, would be helpful to recovery efforts. The following quote reflects the feelings: "We are not given people skills as much as we could be."

Recognition and Evaluation

About 50% of interviewees felt that neither they nor their partners received sufficient recognition for their work in the recovery effort. Sixty-two percent of interviewees indicated that the recovery effort had not been evaluated, even though they personally may have received evaluations in their job. Only four interviewees indicated that their recovery effort had been recently and fully evaluated. "Nobody gets enough recognition for conservation work," was a common feeling.

In terms of progress toward recovery, on average, both FWS and AZA respondents indicated that the captive breeding programs were achieving greater success than reintroduction or field monitoring and research programs.

Organizational Differences

Most respondents believed that the zoo participants (who derived from multiple zoos) were much freer and more flexible in their ability to act. Many respondents perceived the FWS as engaging in micro-management despite a shortage of staff and funding. Also, FWS was perceived as more political than the zoos, with some species receiving more than a fair share of the funding and suffering from too many "chiefs" and politically motivated top-down decision making. Two quotes from the interviewees: "They were happy with what we achieved, but I wanted to move further forward with all parts of the program" and "FWS needs to respect their own people, to delegate authority and let people make decisions."

Overall however, respondents were very positive about the partnership and wanted to see more joint programs between the zoo community and FWS, as shown by this response: "It's been a joy to come together with this group of diverse people and work well."


Many individuals felt clearer guidelines for the interaction would help, for example, providing a master MOU template that programs could adopt and a better definition of roles and responsibilities. Also, the development and continued involvement of Recovery Teams to obtain best possible advice would benefit the recovery efforts.

Many mentioned the need for improved funding, both the amount and its distribution. A number of respondents from both organizations wanted to see more decentralization within FWS, so coordinators would have more autonomy in making the decisions within their realm of expertise. A number of respondents wanted more support and less administrative work from AZA. One respondent said: "I think the States and AZA should be given more money and responsibility in the ESA law. Or, even as it's written, FWS could provide a more active role for other organizations."

Suggestions included joint in situ recovery programs, job sharing, personnel exchange, joint training courses, and workshops where coordinators could share with each other what works, teach each other about how their own institutions operate, and brainstorm new ideas for improving the interaction. This "cross-cultural" knowledge could help both sides collaborate more effectively.

Respondents recommended development of procedures for ongoing internal and external review, evaluation, and strategic planning and for replacement of coordinators. In the latter case, neither partner currently had a say in the replacement of a departing coordinator, despite the fact that coordinators need to work together closely. A quote: "If they pick the wrong person for FWS Coordinator it could be a disaster. I doubt they'll ask me for advice."

Strategic questions and possible directions

Why do endangered species programs not make better use of structure and process? One possible answer is that the knowledge of just how to do this may not exist in the conservation community. Johnston's recent article (2000) suggests this may indeed be the case. The requisite knowledge is out there, but in a different field and one to which the coordinators were insufficiently exposed (Gray 1989). This seems to be true despite a valiant attempt at education through the written word (Clark and Reading 1994). The fact that reading alone is insufficient would not surprise many behavioral scientists. The use of this kind of knowledge is an art form requiring skill and practice, much like playing a sport well (Senge 1990). Experiential learning is the recommended approach, which would include presentation of concepts, discussion of the new behavior suggested by the concepts, practice of new behavior, and then getting feedback on relative success in use of the new behavior. At least the latter two components need to occur in a psychologically safe setting at first, and certainly not on stage in a multi-party arena until well practiced.

Experiential learning requires time. In a resource poor environment time is as precious as money. Although most of the coordinators said they needed help in many social science areas, the training will probably have to be taken to the people rather than attempting to bring the people to the training. Perhaps an in situ behavioral science intervention would be most appropriate.

Also, previous introductions of ideas about the utilization of structure and process knowledge into conservation efforts were possibly unduly critical, saying more about what was done wrong than about how to do it right (Reading and Miller 1994). Or it may have been heavily prescriptive with insufficient understanding of the practice art (Clark and Cragun 1991). If either of these situations exists, they may have created an up-hill course for the conservation community to look favorably on social science intervention. Acknowledgement can help dispel negativity, combined with a kinder, gentler approach. To quote a respondent: "Endangered species management gets very emotional. There are very dedicated people and we get a lot of bad news."

One possible direction pointed to by this study is the revision of the FWS Guidance for Recovery Programs, last revised in 1990. Perhaps awareness of the opinions of the coordinators will speed up this activity, which has been in the planning stages for several years. Support for this idea comes from interviewees: "FWS has no guidelines about the number of species any one person can manage. I have too many!" and "We could lose this species!" and "There are three people in the office and 70 endangered species to deal with."

Another action suggested by the data would be to develop criteria for success or progress on the way to delisting a species. The criteria must be valid for most or all programs and be readily acceptable to the zoo and FWS communities. Perhaps a representative group could be formed and trained in teamwork and team decision-making at the same time they develop the needed criteria. They would then form a mobile "Advisory" group or helping team available to any program that needed them. Their intervention could include both a supportive evaluation and an introduction to and support of teamwork concepts and practices. Apparently, there are too few conservation programs that have developed criteria for short-term (or long-term) evaluation of their progress and have a regular review of process and product as a measure of success (Kleiman et al. 2000)


We are very grateful for the help and sponsorship of Michael Hutchins of AZA and David Harrelson, USFWS. We are also appreciative of the time and straight talk from the 22 Coordinators and other key personnel we interviewed.

Literature cited

Clark, T.W. and J.R. Cragun. 1991. Organization and Management of Endangered Species Programs. Endangered Species UPDATE 8:273-277.

Clark, T.W. and R.P. Reading. 1994. A Professional Perspective: Improving Problem Solving, Communication and Effectiveness. Pp 351-369 in T.W. Clark, R.P. Reading, A.L. Clarke, eds. Endangered Species Recovery: Finding the Lessons, Improving the Process. Island Press, Washington.

Gray, B. 1989. Collaborating: Finding Common Ground for Multiparty Problems. Jossey-Bass, San Francisco.

Jacobson, S.K. and M.D. McDuff. 1998. Training Idiot Savants: the Lack of Human Dimensions in Conservation Biology. Conservation Biology 12:263-267.

Johnston, Scott. 2000. Building a Species Recovery Program on Trust. Conservation Biology in Practice 1:35-37.

Kanter, R.M. 1983. The Change Masters. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Kleiman, D.G., R.P. Reading, B.J. Miller, T.W. Clark, J.M. Scott, J. Robinson, J., R. Wallace, R. Cabin, and F. Felleman, F. 2000. Improving the Evaluation of Conservation Programs. Conservation Biology 14:356-365.

Moosbruker, J. 1988. Developing a Productivity Team: Making Groups at Work Work. Pp 88-97 in W. Reddy, W. Brendan, K. Jamison, eds. Team Building: Blueprints for Productivity and Satisfaction. NTL Institute & Pfeiffer & Co. San Diego.

Moosbruker, J. 1983. OD with a Community Mental Health Center: A Case of Building Structures Patiently. Group and Organizational Studies 8(1):45-59.

Reading, R.P. and B.J. Miller. 1994. The Black-footed Ferret Recovery Program: Unmasking Professional and Organizational Weaknesses. Pp 73-100 in T.W. Clark, R.P. Reading, A.L. Clarke, eds. Endangered Species Recovery: Finding the Lessons, Improving the Process. Island Press, Washington.

Ritvo, R. A.H. Litwin, and L. Butler. 1995. Managing in the Age of Change .New York: Irwin & NTL Institute.

Schein, E.H. 1985. Organizational Culture and Leadership. Washington: Jossey-Bass.

Schein, E.H. 1988. Process Consultation Vol. 1 (2nd Edition). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.

Senge, P.M. 1990. The Fifth Discipline. New York: Doubleday.

Jane Moosbruker

Organization Development Consultant, 72 Coventry Wood Road, Bolton, MA 01740;

Devra G. Kleiman(*)

(*) Current Address: Conservation International, 1919 M St. NW, Washington DC 20036;

Senior Research Scientist, National Zoological Park, Smithsonian Institution, 3001 Connecticut Avenue, N.W. Washington, D.C. 20008-2598
COPYRIGHT 2001 University of Michigan, School of Natural Resources
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Author:Moosbruker, Jane; Kleiman, Devra G.
Publication:Endangered Species Update
Date:May 1, 2001
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