Why “Progress” Fits Natural Resource Conflict Management Better than “Success”

By Steve Daniels for EDRBlog.org

As a practicing environmental facilitator/mediator, I am frequently asked if a process succeeded; it seems politicians and the news media are particularly fond of that question. But a research project that I did many years ago, combined with my own practical experience, have convinced me that in many situations “making progress” is a far more applicable and useful phrase than “achieving success” for the three reasons outlined below.

First, “success” invokes a very episodic frame: you work on something until you succeed, and then you are done. That might be a good fit if you are trying to resolve a labor union strike or craft a treaty to end a war—the agreement is the success. But it may not be so good a fit when the fundamental need is to manage a complex socio-ecological system over the long run. We are unlikely to “succeed” at fixing the anadromous fish issues in the Columbia River system once and for all. We are unlikely to “succeed” in fixing water allocation in the Colorado River basin for one and all. In both of those cases—as in many others—we need management decisions that are constantly monitored and modified in order to adapt to changing knowledge, human demands, and technology. The notion that a group of people could come together, come up with a plan, label it a “success,” and then never need to engage one another around the issues again seems naïve.

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But invoking “progress” implies that even though some important things have been agreed to and accomplished, important work inevitably remains to be done. It recognizes that we are in this for the long haul, and that making whatever progress we can this year is all we can reasonably hope to do, and then we can take another bite of the elephant next year and on into the future. It recognizes that constructive discourse needs to be an on-going component of environmental management, rather than an occasional or intermittent behavior.

Second, “success” implies that you can control all of the decision variables in a situation, and since that is rarely possible in complex environmental systems, it sets you up for failure. Systems theorists divide the world into two things: the system (those things that you are specifically and intentionally focusing on) and the environment (those things that are outside your system, and probably beyond your ability to predict and control). As long as there are things happening in the environment that impact the system, trying to “succeed” in controlling the system borders on arrogant. What happens to your best laid plans if there is a global financial collapse? If a new president changes the priorities for federal land management agencies? If climate change alters weather patterns and precipitation? Acknowledging that there are things beyond anyone’s ability to predict or control makes you more humble in what you promise; to say you have “succeeded” means that you can’t imagine a Black Swan event ever knocking your project off course.

But “progress” is a more modest/incremental frame. It more readily acknowledges that not all of the actors are at the table, that the future is largely unknowable, and that there is inevitable uncertainty in managing complex environmental systems. It rather anticipates that there will be exogenous events that send your agreement spinning out of equilibrium, but that it can also be pulled back into alignment. Success and failure are yin and yang concepts; with the hope for one comes the equal chance of the other. Progress is different; some progress is always possible, even in highly polarized situations.

Finally, “success” tends to focus on the substantive aspects of the situation and under-emphasizes other domains. Many years ago—just as collaborative approaches to federal forest management were gaining traction in the Pacific Northwest in the wake of the spotted owl/old growth controversy—two colleagues and I were asked to identify the factors/behaviors that led to their success. The more we learned, the more confused we got because we could not even label the different collaborative groups as either successes or failures. How do you label a group that failed to achieve any substantive agreement but learned so much along the way that they reconvened and hammered out some remarkable agreements? Can you accurately label their first effort as a failure, when interviewing them revealed they thought the second process was only possible because of the first? We ultimately decided the label “success” was the source of our confusion, and that shifting to “progress” provided clarity.

In my experience, getting people off the frame of “success” and thinking more in terms of “progress” has proven to be one of the more transformative things I can do as a process coach and designer. It gets people out of a paralyzing “all or nothing” frame and creates a much more pragmatic focus on tackling what is doable with the people, resources and knowledge currently at our disposal.

Steve Daniels is on the faculty at Utah State University, where he is a Community Development Specialist in Cooperative Extension and a Professor in the Department of Sociology, Social Work and Anthropology. He has designed and led natural resource decision processes since the early 1990s, most often involving federal land management agencies, communities, and diverse stakeholders.