A New Year’s Resolution for Everyone: Developing Useful Adaptation Case Studies

By Shaun Martin

I don’t know about you, but I have had my fill of boring PowerPoint presentations that have little relevance to my work. I just can’t take it anymore – and that’s unfortunate, because recently I am listening to a lot of presentations. So in 2011, I have decided to do something about this. I am encouraging everyone I know to take a fresh approach to how talk about their adaptation work. Are you with me?

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  Workshop Participants in Kota Kinabalu ©Shaun Martin

Workshop Participants in Kota Kinabalu ©Shaun Martin

Everyone wants to learn from “case studies” (a term I have learned to hate almost as much as “tools”). Our workshop participants want to see real-life examples of adaptation. Fair enough. But the problem comes in the delivery of these so-called case studies. Most presentations are designed with one purpose in mind – to let others know about the projects and programs we are working on and results achieved. This style of presentation is what I call an “information sharing” presentation. While information sharing may be useful in certain settings, this is typically not effective for an audience expecting to learn concepts and approaches applicable in their own work. When speaking to people who are who are new to adaptation, a “learning case study” is almost always more appropriate. More than simply telling others what you are doing, a learning oriented presentation provides useful insights that others can apply to their own work through the use of “lessons learned.”

When creating a case study with an information sharing format, often the starting point is what the speaker wants the audience to know, not what the audience needs to learn. In the field of conservation, the creator of this style of presentation follows a thought process that looks something like this. “First I need to let everyone know why my place and project are so important (background). Then I’ll tell them about the project to show them how we are attempting to conserve this important place (project description and goals). In doing so, I’ll need to talk about all the stakeholders involved and everything we did to achieve results (activities and process).” Are you sleeping already? Because there’s more. “Then I’ll let them know what we achieved, making sure to emphasize the successes (results). I will conclude by talking about what we will do next (next steps).”

This formula is emulated by almost everyone who is asked to present a case study. But to the speaker who thinks this type of “case study” will actually be interesting and useful to an audience, particularly those interested in learning about adaptation, I have a harsh reality check for you – you’re wrong. For the most part, people aren’t engaged with presentations that focus on process, outcomes, and next steps because they are not going to replicate your project. They will quickly forget everything you wanted them to know because it is irrelevant to their own work. People do not need to know what you did. They need to know what you learned from your experiences working in adaptation so they can build on success and avoid repeating mistakes.

When designing a learning case study, the creator of the presentation uses a thought process that starts at the end and works backwards. She or he develops the content by asking questions in the following sequence:

  1. What are a few of the most valuable lessons learned from my project that would be useful for my audience to apply in their own work (lessons learned)?
  2. What happened during project implementation that led to these lessons (successes and failures)?
  3. What essential information about the project does my audience need to put success, failure, and lessons learned in context (interventions that led to learning)?
  4. Whatproblem was the projectaddressing in the first place (problem description)?
  5. What were the underlying factors that contributed to this problem and what conditions existed that would help or hinder successful implementation (context or setting the stage)?”

The presentation itself might start with #5 (the context) and conclude with #1 (the lessons learned). Or lessons learned could appear throughout the presentation but should be summarized and reviewed at the end (I give a simple example below should you want to see how this works). The narrative is most effective when told as a story, using you, a colleague, or a stakeholder as the protagonist. This makes the presentation more personal and something that your audience can identify with as a peer working on similar issues.

When designing a learning case study, you might want to ask yourself these kinds of questions to help you get started:

  • What do I know now that I wish I knew when I began?
  • What would I do differently if I could start over? What would I do again?
  • What was the biggest challenge we anticipated when we started? What actually turned out to be the biggest challenge in the end?
  • What were some beneficial outcomes of the project that we did not anticipate?
  • What were the unanticipated challenges?
  • What were the “A-HA!” moments – points were I discovered something through my personal experience working on the project.
  • What wisdom do I now have that could be shared with others doing the same kind of work

The answers to these questions will likely be lessons learned that you can share with others. Once you have identified lessons learned, choose just a few that would be most helpful for your audience and then build the content of your presentation around them. I recommend selecting no more than 3 lessons learned, since it has been shown that in general people cannot absorb more than 3 key messages in a single presentation.

Are you skeptical? Consider this. In a recent workshop I asked two WWF staff to present their experiences with vulnerability assessments encouraging them to develop a learning case study in the format I described above. The first presenter, for whatever reasons, chose not to follow my advice. He delivered a highly technical presentation filled with maps, indicators, numbers, equations, and graphs. At the end of this 45-minute presentation there were no questions from the audience. (Why would there be?)

The second presenter developed a learning case study. After a few comments on the purpose of his vulnerability assessment and the methodology used, he explained that while the effort was a technical success because it achieved all its deliverables, they belatedly realized that they had produced a document that was not useful in practice. Why? Because they had failed to include the views of community members in their assessment and had therefore produced something that would not address their concerns in a language useful to them (That’s an importantlesson learned for everyone working on vulnerability assessments!). While the presentation itself lasted only 15 minutes, it led to a half-hour of questions and discussion that we had to cut short because we ran out of time. The presenter later revealed to me that he was initially very skeptical about this approach for his presentation, but after delivering it he found it to be one of the most liberating and rewarding talks he had ever given.

In adaptation, we have a lot to learn and we need to learn quickly. We have no time to waste on pointless presentations that merely lets everyone know what we’ve been up to in our parts of the world. We must be open to sharing not only our successes, but our shortcomings and failures as well, so that we can learn together and rapidly build a body of collective wisdom that will help advance adaptation for people, species, and ecosystems. So if you are asked to talk about your work in 2011, join me in my resolution to put an end to meaningless PowerPoint presentations. Share with us what you have learned!


The following is an example of the thought process that occurs when designing case study for learning purposes. It is an actual example of a lesson learned by the WWF-US adaptation training team during our first workshop in Madagascar.

Lesson: It’s not enough to teach WWF staff about climate change, adaptation, vulnerability, and learned solutions. Our staff need to know how to communicate these concepts to others whom they work with in government, communities, etc.

Success and failure: While training WWF staff in Madagascar, we succeeded in conveying a lot of complex information to staff to the point where they believed they knew enough to get started on integrating adaptation into their conservation plans. However, at the end of the training they told us that they lacked confidence in their ability to explain what they had just learned to their partners and thus their new knowledge wasn’t very useful. We had failed to give them any guidance on communicating adaptation.

Interventions that led to success and failure: The WWF US team developed and delivered a five-day training program for WWF staff and partners in Madagascar. Three days were devoted to providing background information on climate change, adaptation, vulnerability, tools, and solutions with emphasis on Madagascar. In the final two days WWF-US staff facilitated ecoregional teams to begin making their conservation plans “climate smart.”

Problem description: WWF Madagascar staff were eager to begin working on climate change adaptation but lacked understanding key concepts, how it was different from their current activities, and simply where to begin. The new adaptation specialist quickly realized that she could not lead adaptation work until program staff received some training on the topic.

Setting the stage or context: The people and wildlife of Madagascar are already experiencing impacts due to climate change. The country director realized that WWF had to change the course of its work if they were to succeed in conserving biodiversity in Madagascar. The office was successful in raising funds for climate change adaptation and the country director hired a new adaptation specialist to lead that work.