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Improving group problem solving in endangered species recovery: using the "decision seminar" method. (applications).


Endangered species recovery requires the confluence of technical skills, most often represented by biology and ecology and their many adjuncts, and social and organizational skills. Over the history of endangered species protection, the social and organizational skills necessary for successful species recovery have often been lacking in recovery programs. As a result, these programs often exhibit weaknesses involving coordination and cooperation among program participants. We discuss and propose the use of methods to improve recovery programs by focussing on and augmenting social and organizational aspects of program implementation and evaluation. The methods we promote fall under the rubric of the "decision seminar," developed by Harold Lasswell and used successfully in many contexts over the past half century. We discuss two examples of endangered species programs which utilized aspects of the decision seminar--one unsuccessfully, in the United States, and one successfully, in Australia. Using these examples, we illustrate the benefits and utility of adopting the decision seminar in endangered species recovery programs.


Endangered species recovery programs require collaboration and effective problem solving among participants--government agencies, landowners, conservation organizations, industry groups, resource users, and others. The best way to achieve this is by participants agreeing on what the recovery problem is, its context, and how to solve it. Optimizing recovery means using old methods better and adopting new ones as needed. In fact, the Endangered Species Act of 1973 (ESA), Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 (MMPA), and other laws and administrative rules for protecting species and habitats all seek to enhance coordination and collaboration as one means to improve recovery. However, in the 30-year history of the ESA and MMPA no formal approach has been adopted in this regard, other than use of recovery plans as mandated by the ESA. Recovery plans are often technical documents aimed at directing biological research and management. They are not designed to take a complete, problem oriented look at the recovery challenge or address its full context in any single case. Rarely do recovery plans offer guidance on how to effectively manage the organizational complexity involved in recovery efforts, for example. In reality, diverse participants with competing values and perspectives can and do impede recovery, unintentionally or otherwise. This makes solving recovery problems that much harder. As a result, collaboration in recovery programs is often ad hoc or haphazard, even in cases where a plan clearly delineates the roles and responsibilities of program participants and where lead agency staff make deliberate efforts to bring participants together. Clark and Westrum (1989) have written on the need for guidance in the formation and operation of high-performance teams in endangered species recovery.

Here, we describe, illustrate, and call for the widespread use of a proven method--"decision seminar"--to improve success of recovery efforts. Burgess and Slonaker (1976) give a clear and thorough description of how to carry out a decision seminar. To date the decision seminar method has been little used in species recovery, but it promises to significantly improve conservation.

I. The Hawaiian monk seal case

This case, although it did not use the decision seminar method, illustrates its benefits, in part by counter (negative) example. The Marine Mammal Protection Act created the federal Marine Mammal Commission (MMC), a small independent agency of the executive branch charged with overseeing and providing recommendations on federal and state marine mammal programs under the ESA and MMPA. Over its history, MMC has undertaken a number of meetings fashioned after the decision seminar method, with varying levels of success. In 1989, while on the MMC staff, one of the authors (RLW) helped to organize a meeting of participants in the Hawaiian monk seal recovery program to address problems in program implementation and evaluation. The Hawaiian monk seal is among the world's most endangered seals, with a current population numbering fewer than 1,500 individuals that has declined about 60% since the late 1950s (National Marine Fisheries Service 2001). It is found in the Hawaiian Archipelago, predominately in the atolls and islets to the northwest of the main Hawaiian Islands. Pressures facing the monk seal population include predation by sharks, mauling of young and female monk seals by adult males, starvation of young seals, disease, environmental contaminants, human disturbance, injury or entrapment in marine debris, and both operational and biological interactions with commercial fisheries (Ragen and Lavigne 1999).

Recovery efforts

The lead agency for monk seal recover under the ESA and MMPA is the National Marine Fisheries Service of the U.S. Department of Commerce (NMFS), which manages both research and management activities in the program. Other agencies and organizations have been involved in monk seal recovery due to their ownership of monk seal habitat, operations in monk seal habitat, advocacy of monk seal issues, or the relevance of their expertise in addressing problems with monk seal recovery. They include the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources, Western Pacific Fishery Management Council, U.S. Navy, U.S. Coast Guard, Sea Life Park of Hawaii, and Earthtrust.

The monk seal program, as directed by NMFS, has a history of organizational dysfunction (Lavigne 1999; Wallace 2000; Wallace in press). The MMC was responding to these problems in calling its meeting. Problems included NMFS's refusal to convene the monk seal recovery team between 1984 and 1989 despite alarm over the declining monk seal population and problems of inefficiency. The program showed problems in data collection, analysis, peer review, and publication during the 1980s (Marine Mammal Commission 1990). Among the goals of the MMC-sponsored meeting was to promote a collaborative and coordinated approach to the many complex, interrelated issues challenging NMFS's efforts to protect and recover the monk seal and its habitat.

The meeting took place in La Jolla, California, at NMFS's southwest regional research laboratory, the parent office to the NMFS laboratory in Honolulu where the monk seal program is housed. While it was not modeled explicitly on the decision seminar, it initially shared both structure and goals with the decision seminar method described below. The meeting involved a core group of agency personnel and non-agency scientists who were then either responsible for making decisions concerning the monk seal research and management programs or were experienced monk seal researchers. Among the concerns they addressed were the effects of various human activities on monk seals and their habitat

Non-governmental advocacy groups were not invited to attend. The participants were selected solely for their knowledge, skill, and experience in monk-seal related research and management and their status as authoritative decision-makers in the monk seal program. The meeting was convened and moderated by MMC staff who were skilled in group dynamics and strategic planning, knowledgeable about monk seal recovery issues, but were not directly involved in monk seal decision making. The meeting was held over the course of two days in a conference room overlooking the Pacific Ocean, where participants could stretch their legs while taking in a view of the beach, ocean, or sunset. Food and drinks were provided. In all, an effort was made to make the meeting a comfortable occasion in which participants could focus on the agenda--monk seal recovery. The agenda, which was drafted by MMC and shared and revised with the input of the participants prior to the meeting, indicated that the two days would be devoted to strategic planning to address specific shortcomings in the monk seal program. This meant that participants would be expected to critically evaluate their past actions, develop shared goals for addressing existing problems, brainstorm alternatives to address identified problems, and then commit to actions necessary to achieve the goals.

Meeting results

The meeting was a failure. MMC made a strong attempt to run the meeting such that it would have a lasting effect on the monk seal program through the work and commitments of its participants. However, a commitment by key agency participants to changing the status quo operation of the monk seal program never materialized. This was due to several circumstances. First, agency staff approached the meeting with some trepidation due to the perception that they would be subjected to criticism for past and current problems. Second, MMC, despite having sought the input of participants prior to the meeting, set and controlled the agenda, which meant that other participants did not feel the same level of commitment to the meeting as did MMC. Third, as the meeting wore on it became clear that much of the onus of improving the program's operation was being placed on NMFS. While this was appropriate given NMFS's responsibilities as lead federal agency under the law, at the meeting key NMFS staff began to feel put-upon, and thus less open to the process that was occurring. Fourth, participants other than NMFS staff tended to either side with MMC in pursuing its agenda for the meeting and monk seal program or to be noncommittal.

As a result, NMFS staff became increasingly defensive and thus less interested in a collaborative effort to secure program goals, which in any case appeared not to be shared goals, but rather MMC's. All of these factors conspired to reduce the commitment by NMFS staff to MMC's goals for the meeting and thus to making the meeting a productive one. Instead, as the meeting wore on discussion devolved into a series of proposals for programmatic changes, which, due to other participants' lack of buy-in, appeared as MMC attempting to micro-manage the monk seal program. The failure of the meeting was caused by NMFS's resistance to improving its programmatic actions under the ESA and MMC's lack of skill in managing the meeting to reduce the conflicts that undermined it. For example, as the meeting progressed and it became clear that participants were not achieving the goals they desired, closed-door meetings among sub-groups began to occur during meals and at night which de-emphasized the importance of the primary meeting. Following the meeting, NMFS's staff and program returned to the status quo--relations between NMFS and other program participants was unchanged with the exception that NMFS finally convened the recovery team, which has meet regularly ever since. Nonetheless, little changed to improve the shortcomings in the program that MMC had identified.

Comparing the decision seminar model as described below to this meeting illuminates its shortcomings: the meeting was not based on a shared commitment to goals and the meeting was not run such that tension among participants would be reduced and collaboration could occur. Had efforts been made at the outset by both MMC and NMFS to establish a meeting format that would be mutually supportive, the outcome would likely have been different. Given the resistance of NMFS to MMC's and other participants' recommendations for NMFS action, a truly collaborative format might have resulted in fewer changes to the monk seal program than were originally sought by MMC. The benefits, however, might have been an improvement in participants' willingness to evaluate the program through a critical, constructive discussion, thus opening the door to improving implementation in the future. As it turned out, the meeting failed to improve implementation, evaluation, or the level of discourse that occurred among program participants.

II. The decision seminar

One promising method for achieving a more successful collaboration and coordination is the decision seminar (Clark 2002). Decision seminars are a continuing series of moderated, structured sessions involving selected participants in the recovery process. They are designed to promote identification of problems realistically and agreement on strategies for solving them practically.

Method and features

The idea and structure of the decision seminar was developed by Harold Lasswell as a means for carrying out problem solving and decision making that stabilizes people's expectations and goals in a management policy process (Lasswell 1960, 1971a, 1971b). Speaking generally, Lasswell (1960:216) noted that "it is increasingly perceived that modes of group problem solving are needed that improve the probability of realistic, comprehensive and timely solutions," an observation which applies directly to endangered species recovery today and underscores the importance and potential of the decision seminar method.

Decision seminars are a structured method for integrating the many different approaches to group meetings that are necessary to develop solutions to complex problems. Lasswell (1971a, 1971b) and Burgess and Slonaker (1975) describe the basic functions and components of a decision seminar. First is a dedicated core group of individuals committed to meeting regularly and for as long as is necessary to address the problem (maybe years). This is necessary for the group's knowledge and experience to grow as a unit and to avoid the need to repeatedly return to basic foundational issues with the addition of new members in the later stages of the seminar. This requirement underscores the importance of participants agreeing to join the group because they have a primary interest in solving the problem at hand. Lasswell (1971a) suggests a self-selected membership, but in the context of endangered species recovery, participants in a decision seminar must represent all the participants whose involvement is necessary to achieve recovery goals for the species or population in question. Changes in core group membership will likely occur (e.g., disruptive group members should be asked to leave). Nevertheless, the core group must remain stable enough over the life of the seminar so that the goals can be accomplished in a timely fashion (particularly where increasing species mortality or habitat loss is occurring). Sub-groups may be formed to address individual aspects of the overall problem and outside experts may be asked to join the group temporarily as the need arises.

Second is commitment of group members to carrying out an agreed-upon and specific agenda. This is necessary to avoid diffusion or misappropriation of the goals of the group and to keep the group operating with the overriding recovery goal in mind. The more specific the tasks and the clearer the understanding of each member's responsibilities the better, even if certain tasks are abstract (e.g., conceptual brainstorming, so often necessary to address complex problems). For recovery programs, "goal inversion or substitution" occurs and the recommendation helps avoid that and other problems (see Clark 1997).

Third are frequent meetings. Meeting frequency will be influenced by the logistical complexity of bringing group members together. For recovery programs where research and management actions are being taken at a rapid pace, frequent--perhaps weekly or bi-weekly--meetings may be necessary. The more frequently the group meets, the greater the likelihood that the goals of the seminar and recovery program will remain clear and current, and the tasks taken will support goals.

Fourth is an emphasis within the group on being actively and systematically self-reflective. One of the benefits of the decision seminar is that group members become familiar with each other to the point that each may assess the other's contributions in a purely constructive (i.e. not threatening) fashion. This promotes an atmosphere of discussion and insight rather than formal administrative appraisal and ritualized interaction. As well, recovery group members gain the ability to critically evaluate their individual and collective decision making ability, an action that if successfully undertaken improves group operations over time.

Fifth is a contextual approach to problem solving in which boundaries are put around the topic at hand in order to establish a common understanding of the limits of the group's mandate. In the case of a recovery program, there will be two contexts to delineate. One concerns the recovery program itself, so the group must identify where the boundaries of their authority and abilities fall with regard to research, management, and enforcement actions. The other context concerns the group and its members' responsibility to each other to promote a sound decision making process.

Sixth is clear agreement on the overall operational and task-oriented goals and to stay focused on them when presenting and using information in recovery. Without consensus on goals, the group risks becoming divided over research and management methods, data, and the process and outcome of evaluations. For recovery programs, this can be divisive and impair the process and interpersonal working relationships.

Seventh is an understanding of the role and utility of multiple methods in recovery programs and group decision making processes. When discussing recovery actions, the group must welcome consideration of strategies from all disciplines that might help reach recovery goals. Similarly, group members must be open-minded about diverse methods of achieving group goals. This will be the harder task because it is unlikely that all group members will have experience with the practical, intellectual exercises (e.g., role-playing, simulation, gaming) that may be used to encourage sound decision making.

Eight is a focus on innovation and creativity. Group members must agree on the appropriateness of taking intellectual risks when discussing and planning tasks for the recovery program. Put another way, they must leave room for brainstorming sessions in which idiosyncratic ideas are welcomed alongside conservative ones and all are explored for their utility in achieving the goals.

Ninth is an agreed-upon location where the group can receive the support it needs to function productively during its meetings. For recovery programs, this means a setting that is functional and comfortable. The group needs adequate space and support to carry out its deliberations. For example, it may need plenty of wall space to permanently display data on trends and conditions of the recovery effort. This visual material can be constantly updated and it can be used to orient the group from meeting to meeting.

What sets a decision seminar apart from other methods of group work in endangered species recovery is its emphasis on building skills and knowledge on problem solving that will improve decision making in the future. Most group work in endangered species recovery is focused on one or more specific recovery tasks (e.g., reducing mortality) and lacks a self-reflective emphasis on learning how to use group methods in the most effective manner. With a set of guidelines such as those given above, foundational training (either self-administered or sought from outside experts with experience in decision seminars), and open minds, a group may convene even without a member experienced in professional group dynamics and still accomplish the goals of a decision seminar.

A critique

Decision seminars have been used successfully since the 1950s in fields outside of endangered species recovery. These have produced benefits to education policy in the United States (Bolland and Muth 1984, 1987), community development in Peru (Dobyns et al. 1971; Holmberg 1958), and the re-establishment of democratic governance in Afghanistan following the end of the Soviet occupation in the 1980s (Willard and Norchi 1993), too mention only a few instances.

Based on this and other experience, decision seminars are particularly well suited for addressing complex and often highly technical policy processes that involve diverse knowledge, skills, and innovative problem solving strategies (Brewer 1975). They can reduce conflict, improve communication, shift the focus of decision making from reactive to proactive, promote leadership skills among members, and decrease problems associated with hierarchy and competition between stakeholders (Cunningham 1981).

The issue of group leadership is critical, and in this regard decision seminars may take many forms. Seminars can be led by a person outside the management process under scrutiny by the seminar. In this case, the outsider must be someone who is well respected by all group members and who they are willing to welcome into the group in a leadership capacity to help the group achieve its goals. Optimally, an external leader would be someone experienced with group dynamics who can assist in refining the approach to learning and operating as a cohesive unit. As well, a decision seminar can be led by a person within the group, chosen by group members. In this case, the leader should have direct involvement and expertise in the issue at hand. They should be respected and willing to cede certain authority in achieve group goals. Also, they must be able to help the group focus on both group processes and outcome goals. Finally, a decision seminar may be leaderless or led by consensus of group members rather than a single person. This is the most challenging leadership model because it requires an unambiguous shared commitment to goals and responsibilities and willingness by all group members to participate vigorously in every aspect of every group activity.

In their review of past decision seminars, Bolland and Muth (1984) identify the most prevalent shortcoming of the decision seminar method of problem solving: that group members will default to a standard day-to-day or "brush fire" mentality and lose the seminar's emphasis on learning, reflection, and insight. These factors are all directed at how to most effectively operate as a group to achieve common goals.

The benefits of decision seminars can far outweigh and overcome weaknesses in ordinary endangered species recovery in the United States and elsewhere. Because endangered species recovery is a crisis-oriented discipline, most practitioners are too busy working in the moment to consider approaches to learning and decision making that might benefit them both today and in the long run (Clark et al. 1994). However, by becoming skilled and experienced in the methods of the decision seminar, people will increase both the effectiveness and efficiency of decision making and improved species conservation. As with all new approaches to professional practice, there is a learning curve that must be passed before the full benefits of the method can be reaped and become fully evident.

III. The eastern barred bandicoot case

Perhaps one of the most successful applications of the decision seminar method in endangered species recovery occurred under the direction of one of the authors (TWC) in Australia. This effort was focused on the eastern barred bandicoot in Victoria (see Clark and Seebeck 1990 and the 10 papers therein; Backhouse et al. 1994; Clark et al. 1995).

The problem

The bandicoot is one of the most critically endangered species in Victoria, showing a 99+% loss of abundance and range by 1998. At that time it was nearing extinction with less than 150 animals in the wild at a single location and few individuals in captivity. Key data about the species and its plight were absent and the organization and commitment needed to effectively recovery the species was lacking. Later research showed the species was declining about 25% per year.

The solution

In 1988 a new partnership was set up to achieve species recovery and develop a model program. A key element in this was a decision seminar mode of organization and operation. It was not declared formally that the new partnership would use a decision seminar format. Instead, the partnership used a decision seminar modus operandi in an informal way to guide interpersonal and inter-organizational interactions, data gathering and analysis, and decisions about how to proceed. It was put in place without calling attention to it so that recovery team members and interested parties could stay focused on bandicoot conservation, better interact with one another, and do so in an active learning mode.

The effort conformed to all nine features of a decision seminar listed above. First, a dedicated core group of individuals met in the field, office, and decision room often for about five years. Second, committed members eventually came to carry out an agreed-upon and specific agenda. Third, members met in various combinations frequently. Many meetings were informal and no decisions were made. Fourth, certain group members encouraged others to be actively, and systematically self-reflective. Fifth, members were contextual and bounded the problem practically. Sixth, the group was goal oriented. Seventh, the team used multiple methods. Eight, some members focused on innovation and creativity. Ninth, the group acquired the minimal support needed for productive meetings. It took time and work to achieve these features, and even in the end, not all members were fully or productively engaged. Achieving these operational features allowed the bandicoot recovery group to be problem-oriented, contextual, and use multiple methods in its work.

By the mid- to late 1990s, the species' status had improved dramatically. Bandicoot numbers increased to 1,000+ individuals at six reintroduction sites, plus the original wild population, and a captive program. Prospects looked good for eventual recovery of the species. The decision seminar method deserves much credit for these accomplishments. However, it was impossible to permanently institutionalize the decision seminar method into the bandicoot program or the parent agencies involved. The causes of this were elections and changes in government policy and agencies. The agencies were dramatically reoriented to very conservative agendas and clients, including reorganizing them to mimic for-profit organizations. This included downsizing, transfers, and loss of staff in the bandicoot program. Budgets were also drastically cut. These changes prevented the benefits of the decision seminar from being fully capitalized on beyond the first 5+ years of the recovery program.


Decision seminars are a means to improve endangered species recovery. The two cases described here--the Hawaiian monk seal and the eastern barred bandicoot--illustrate variables that contribute to the failure or success of group work in recovery. Successful recovery often hinges on relationships among participants and their ability to work collaboratively; to identify problems realistically in a timely fashion; and to follow though with solutions. Identifying problems means giving full attention to the social process or context involved. For a decision seminar to succeed, its members must achieve and maintain a focus on the process of group work and the outcomes of the seminar, both in terms of recovery actions and the group learning process. Ideally, when a decision seminar is complete, the outcomes include: biological trends supporting a reduced need for recovery actions and a group of highly trained problem solvers ready and able to contribute much-needed skills and knowledge to other group recovery activities. Decision seminars, if used widely and with skill, hold promise of greatly improved endangered species recovery. They also offer a way to grow a population of professionals whose skills, knowledge, and experience raise the old standards for problem solving and set new ones for the entire field of endangered species recovery.

Literature cited

Bolland, J.M. and R. Muth. 1984. The decision seminar: A new approach to urban problem solving. Knowledge: Creation, Diffusion, Utilization 6(1):75-88.

Brewer, G.D. 1975. Dealing with complex social problems: The potential of the "decision seminar." In G.D. Brewer, and R.D. Brunner, eds. Political development and change: A policy approach. The Free Press, New York.

Burgess, P.M. and L.L. Slonaker. 1975. The decision seminar: A strategy for problem-solving. The Mershon Center of The Ohio State University, Columbus, Ohio.

Clark, T.W. 1997. Averting extinction: Reconstructing endangered species recovery. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Clark, T.W. 2002. The policy process: A practical guide for natural resources professionals. Yale University Press, New Haven.

Clark, T.W. and R. Westrum. 1989. High performance teams in wildlife conservation: A species reintroduction and recovery example. Environmental Management 13(6):663-670.

Clark, T.W. and J.H. Seebeck, eds. 1990. Management and conservation of small populations. Proceedings of a conference, Sept. 26-27, 1989, Melbourne. Chicago Zoological Society, Brookfield, Illinois.

Clark, T.W., R.P. Reading, and A. Clarke, eds. 1994. Endangered species recovery: Finding the lessons, improving the process. Island Press, Washington, D.C.

Clark, T.W., G.N. Backhouse, and R.P. Reading. 1995. Prototyping in endangered species recovery programmes: The eastern barred bandicoot experience. Pp. 50-62 in A. Bennett, G. Backhouse, and T.W. Clark, eds. People and nature conservation: Perspectives on private land use and endangered species recovery. Transactions of the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales, Sydney.

Cunningham, L.L. 1981. Applying Lasswell's concepts in field situations: Diagnostic and prescriptive values. Educational Administration Quarterly 17:21-43.

Dobyns, H.F., P.L. Doughty, and H.D. Lasswell. 1971. Peasants, power, and applied social change. Sage Publications, Beverly Hills, California.

Holmberg, A.R. 1958. The research and development approach to the study of change. Human Organization 17:12-16.

Lasswell, H.D. 1960. Technique of decision seminars. Midwest Journal of Political Science 4(3):213-236.

Lasswell, H.D. 1971a. A pre-view of the policy sciences. American Elsevier Publishing Company, New York.

Lasswell, H.D. 1971 b. The continuing decision seminar as a technique of instruction. Policy Sciences 2:43-57.

Lavigne, D.M. 1999. The Hawaiian monk seal: Management of an endangered species. Pp. 246-266 in J.R. Twiss, Jr. and R.R. Reeves, eds. Conservation and management of marine mammals. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

Marine Mammal Commission. 1990. Annual report to Congress, calendar year 1989. Marine Mammal Commission, Washington, D.C.

Muth, R. 1987. The decision seminar: A problem-solving technique for school administrators. Planning and Changing 18:45-60

National Marine Fisheries Service. 2001. Hawaiian monk seal stock assessment. National Marine Fisheries Service, La Jolla, California.

Ragen, T.J. and D.M. Lavigne. 1999. The Hawaiian monk seal: Biology of an endangered species. Pp. 224-245 in J.R. Twiss, Jr. and R.R. Reeves, eds. Conservation and management of marine mammals. Smithsonian Institution Press, Washington, D.C.

Wallace, R.L. 2000. Marine mammal recovery: The human dimensions. Ph.D. dissertation. Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, New Haven, Connecticut.

Wallace, R.L. In press. Social influences on conservation: Lessons from U.S. recovery programs for marine mammals. Conservation Biology.

Willard, A.R. and C.H. Norchi. 1993. The decision seminar as an instrument of power and enlightenment. Political Psychology 14:575-606.
Richard L. Wallace
Environmental Studies Program, Ursinus College, P.O. Box 1000,
Collegeville, PA 19426

Tim W. Clark
Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies,
301 Prospect Street, New Haven, CT 06511,
Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative, Box 2705, Jackson, WY 83001
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Author:Wallace, Richard L.; Clark, Tim W.
Publication:Endangered Species Update
Date:Jul 1, 2002
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