Learning from published project failures in conservation

Allison S. Catalano, Joss Lyons-White, Morena M. Mills, Andrew T. Knight

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

87 Citations (Scopus)


Conservation professionals need to know what has worked and what has not when designing, implementing, evaluating and refining conservation projects. Project failure reporting is an important, but largely unexploited, source of learning that capitalizes on the learning opportunity of failure provided through the experience of navigating research-implementation ‘spaces’. Learning from others through reading available literature is one way to supplement learning gained through direct experience. Learning vicariously is especially effective when presenting failure as opposed to success experiences. We reviewed the peer-reviewed conservation science literature to identify the extent and characteristics of failed project reporting, focusing our analysis upon social dimensions as opposed to biological causes, which have been comparatively well addressed. We quantified the degree to which articles reported activities commonly applied to learn from failure in business, medicine, the military and commercial aviation. These included activities for identifying, analyzing, correcting and sharing project failures. We used qualitative thematic analysis to identify the social causes of project failure. Reports of failed project experiences are rare and lack standardization. Human dimensions of project failure, such as stakeholder relationships, are more commonly reported than other causes of failure. The peer-reviewed literature has the potential to become a useful repository of lessons learned from failed projects. However, practical challenges such as identifying individuals' cognitive biases, cultivating psychological safety in teams, mainstreaming systemic team learning behaviors, addressing varied leadership styles, and confronting fear of failure in organizational culture must be overcome if conservation professionals are to effectively navigate research-implementation ‘spaces’.

Original languageEnglish
Article number108223
JournalBiological Conservation
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2019
Externally publishedYes


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