Stumbling Blocks to Success

What are the most common obstacles to success in working with citizens, customers and colleagues?

To find out, OWP asked wildlife planners to identify key stumbling blocks in their work. Several prominent issues rose to the surface, along with tips for overcoming them.

Understanding Government, Bureaucracy

Photo by Madeline LeClaire Mitchell

A common challenge, especially for people new to government, is that they expect government to function like the private sector, according to Chris Hoving, Adaptation Specialist, Wildlife Division, Michigan Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

“The civil service reforms of a century ago worked to remove bribery risks by disallowing government organizations from recognizing individual success monetarily,” explains Hoving. “Any expectations or attempts to make the government more like the private sector often run up against violations of checks-and-balances, fairness or anti-corruption policies. That’s why it helps to give new hires and newly elected representatives a crash course in civics.”

Despite working in this environment, however, it’s important to not let bureaucracy stand in the way of progress, advises Brent Thomas, GIS Analyst, Idaho Fish and Game. “

How do you get around this?” asks Thomas, “Stop asking for permission and learn to be an honest rule-breaker.”

Thomas’ Tips for Being an Honest Rule Breaker:

  1. Make sure you have some tenure or political capital before proceeding.
  2. Ask for forgiveness, not permission.
  3. Succeed on your own terms with your own blood, sweat and free time.
  4. Embrace your followers as equals (especially the first one). Build and support your tribe. Make the successes theirs, not yours. Shed your ego.
  5. Let go of control; share without expecting a return.
  6. Allow leadership to take credit for your success.
  7. Time to start over. Repeat as needed.

Leveraging Influencers

While working with the organizational chart, it’s also helpful to identify those colleagues who have strong reputations, which can help or hinder success on a project.

“There are thought leaders in the agency who often have more influence on certain issues than those higher up the org chart,” reminds Hoving. “This actual org chart conveys valuable information. When you can identify those influencers, you can better leverage their input and support. It’s important to reach both org charts via regular communications or meetings.”

Stepping Out of Your Silo

It’s human nature to want to work more closely with people like us. But invaluable information can be gained by stepping outside our silos, working with other personality types and welcoming other opinions. In other words, the broader you make your coalition, the more robust your plan.

“We all have blind spots that we don’t recognize,” says Hoving. “When you’re meeting with people different than you, it’s easier to see those blind spots. That’s why we need to cast our nets more broadly. Invite people to participate in your meetings who you wouldn’t normally invite to a party.”

Handling Opposing Opinions

Fish and wildlife managers often face communication style differences in their jobs, reports Kenneth Kesson, Michigan DNR Wildlife Biologist.

“Misinformation is sometimes either perceived or direct in nature,” says Kesson. “It’s important to recognize these communication differences, and address them as they arise.”

Commonly, fish and wildlife planners must deal with disparate views deeply rooted in core values, explains Douglas Vincent-Lang, Director, Division of Wildlife Conservation at Alaska Department of Fish and Game. That’s why the process must appear to be fair, so that even if the outcome isn’t what everyone wanted, at least people were able to provide feedback.

“One has to accept that deeply rooted opinions are largely unchangeable,” says Vincent-Lang. “We must work around these opinions to find areas acceptable on the canvas that we’re trying to paint. The goal is to find a single solution that everyone can live with, and if not, the discontents are satisfied their opinions were heard.”

Allowing Soak Time

When humans encounter change, they think more about the potential losses than they do about the potential gains – by about two times as much, according to research by Max Bazerman.

What’s a good tip for successfully managing this “loss aversion bias” and moving communities to change? The answer lies in an old fishing trick, according to Michael Fraidenburg, owner of The Cooperation Company.

“Anglers use the term ‘soak time’ to describe the length of time they leave fishing gear in water before retrieving their catch,” says Fraidenburg. “When creating changes, it’s helpful to throw new ideas out early to let them soak in the community.”

This allows stakeholders to familiarize themselves with the changes and discuss why they are needed. “Ideally, this ‘soak time’ lets the community see the changes with a more balanced perspective about the potential for gain,” he adds.

Building Bridges

Particularly with politically or culturally sensitive issues, it’s important to consider your messenger, according to Hoving. “In some cases, the messenger matters more to successful communication than the actual message,” he says. “This underscores the importance of a diverse coalition of partnerships to navigate difficult issues.”

Always look for people who can serve as “bridges” to reach these groups. “Russ Mason, Chief of Michigan DNR’s Wildlife Division, is a ‘hunter’s hunter’,” explains Hoving. “But he is also passionate about climate change. As an in-group messenger, Russ does a great job of framing sensitive issues such as ‘lead in ammunition’ into words that hunters can better appreciate. That’s because he speaks their language.”

Avoiding Overkill

With so much emphasis on partnering and collaborating, it’s easy to overdo it. More isn’t always better. “I’m a great proponent of partnerships,” says Hoving. “But we often have too many partnerships for partnership sake. Agencies seek dozens of partnerships, get pulled into hundreds or thousands, and we have serious issues with capacity and expectations. We must learn to leverage partnerships to gain more than we give, and we must learn that it’s okay to say no (or not yet), so we can harness the power of partnerships wisely.”

OWP President Ann Forstchen agrees.

At the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, where Forstchen is Human Dimensions Coordinator, there is a strong approach of teaming to address conservation challenges. She’s a firm supporter of managing teamwork effectively.

“Our agency was quite formal at the beginning,” remembers Forstchen. “Every issue had a team with representatives from all major divisions and offices. We had formal charters and decision structures for the different types of teams. And it seemed that all we did was attend team meetings and not have time to do anything else.”

The Florida agency’s teaming process has normalized and streamlined itself over time, and teamwork has become “just something we do,” she adds. “Some meetings are more formal than others, but we always question who should be here and what perspectives are we missing?”

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