Planning by Doing

In an attempt to build resilience, Cape York NRM is moving away from a traditional ‘plan, then do’ approach to a continually adaptive process that involves collective learning. While there are times where one could only do ‘planning’, the larger process is built on concurrently planning and doing - step by step, and cyclic. Activities are adapting while working on projects that inform future management decisions to reach the NRM plan targets. Cape York NRM's staff and Board and the people of Cape York are together learning skills and knowledge to improve the effectiveness of on-ground actions as they happen and are monitored. New information is taken into the new cycle and is able to inform and update plans, priorities and actions to better equip people to deal with unexpected shocks. The planning by doing method is framed by the actions of listening, learning, looking and linking.

For the first two years of operations Cape York NRM was in transition from government directed investment to community investment through development of a regional investment strategy (RIS) in late 2012. This strategy was developed through analysis of existing planning documents and by workshopping with members and stakeholders of Cape York NRM sectors. It included a comprehensive evaluation of previously funded projects.

This RIS was reviewed in 2014 with consideration to potential climate change impacts and lessons learnt through a two day workshop with members, community delivery partners and stakeholders. The community reviewed and re-worked the six regionally critical themes for land management, which the organisation still uses to categorise projects and activities and align investment.

Cape York NRM has now spent three and a half years implementing a strategy based on the six RIS themes. During this time, the organisation has felt changes in investment focus from funding bodies, shifts in government priorities, policies and legislation, learned from project lessons and listened through our engagement. All of this has led to an understanding that investment and effort tends to be spread thin because each theme represents competing priorities. The development of a new approach was required to change the way planning happens, to incorporate new information and focus scarce funds to places where multiple outcomes are possible.

Cape York NRM works continuously with community to plan and build capacity to change management actions, using the best available information. These local and regional actions are continuously monitoring and evaluated. Incorporating this information into actions can enable land management practices to adapt to new situations. Integrating all of these continuous cycles led to a re-think of the concept of planning by doing.

Planning by Doing

While the concept of Planning by Doing had already been discussed in other parts of Australia, Cape York NRM has redeveloped this concept. Planning by Doing in the Cape York context is harnessing and improving people's existing capacity to understand and manage natural resources.

Planning and doing together builds on people's capacity through experience and collective learning. Our aim is to increase resilience of people and the environment to detrimental changes. This process adds value to on-ground actions by using tools and principles to listen to people's aspirations and understand environmental signals, learn together, then look for people, resources and funding, and ultimately link people together for on-ground actions.

Through this process Cape York NRM has identified eight adaptation pathways to assist people to reach eight natural resource management targets.

Cape York NRM initially designed a community-driven planning process with two concepts:

1. Focus on systems (such as all water flows), rather than assets (such as a lagoon). Recognition of connectivity expressed in Indigenous cultures of Cape York - talking about systems makes sense on Cape York, as all things are connected. The organisation hence took a cultural ecological systems approach.

2. A focus on action, where we plan as we go about doing things and providing tools useful to planning across scales. This also recognises current efforts to tackle NRM issues across Cape York communities that assist in mitigating effects of a changing climate and improve the resilience of country and people.

Core to this was a cluster-based approach, bringing like-minded people together to tackle big issues important to them. Big issues on Cape York include fire or cattle production and supporting our sectors to identify their priorities and develop indicators to monitor achievement into the future, share stories and learn with their communities. We have worked with these clusters for the past three years: funding activities, holding workshops, sharing knowledge between people, monitoring on-ground works and reflecting on the process. A large part of this process has been the Your Climate project but also through projects undertaken through our community regional investment strategy.

Your Climate Project

In 2013, Cape York NRM was successful in gaining funding through Stream 1 of the NRM Planning for Climate Change fund of the Commonwealth Government that was available to regional NRM bodies to update their existing NRM plans with consideration to climate change. The ‘Your Climate’ project was a key engagement tool in the process of developing our Regional NRM plan. We did the 'Your Climate' engagement to understand peoples’ knowledge of how their place functioned, their values, changes they had seen already and their priorities for now and the future.

Material collected over the past two and a half years include:

1. Questionnaires about people’s place, values, change and capacity to adapt (>100 documented interviews);

2. Video footage of Indigenous and community stories of people talking about values, place and change (>90 captures from Mulong and South Cape York Catchments);

3. Individual or group responses from events and workshops about various aspects of values, place and change (>15 events).

Four organisations and two Traditional Owners from Lockhart used the questionnaire to engage with the community across Cape York, including South Cape York Catchments, Mitchell River Watershed Management Group, Mulong and our project team at Cape York NRM.

One key result is videos of stories told by Traditional Owners and Elders across Cape York, and we have now collated 90 clips through this project. We estimate that our engagement at events has reached another 200+ individuals about what's important to them, climate change, general changes, their aspirations and future activities or projects.

We are now going back to groups as we implement the plan to discuss updated climate science impacts now available from Stream 2. The results of this project will to help people to keep on managing their land, look for new options and respond to changes.

Cape York NRM has worked in collaboration with James Cook University, CSIRO and three other Wet Tropics Cluster NRM groups to investigate and build new knowledge around climate change projections, impacts and adaptation for the region. Three key sets of outputs are a set of trans-disciplinary science synthesis report, a set of brochures summarising the findings of this work and a film on climate change impacts and adaptation. These can be found on the Adapt: Climate Stories site.

The Planning by Doing methodology identifies a framework for engagement that supports the implementation of actions identified in the adaptation pathways. The engagement framework involves listening, learning, looking and linking in order to come to know what it is, what it does and how to do it, and implementing management practice changes that benefit the environment and people. 

Listen: Understand people and the environment

What: Listening to people's aspirations and listening to environmental signals helps to know where we are at. We also actively create ways to seek new information through on-ground observations, monitoring data, survey results, plans and research reports.

Why: Understanding all of these signals together gives us the first step in our reflective process, allowing us to pause and listen to what’s important, even as work is under way.

How: Within each pathway, the tools we use to do this include working on-ground, collecting field data, running surveys and workshops, receiving information and media.

Atlas sites: To get a feel for some of this listening we have done and facilitated, you can check out:

  • Stories catalogued on the Land Manager site,
  • Results of the RIS workshops in 2013 and 2014
  • Results of the Your Climate project.
  • Mapping and monitoring data on map previewer

Learn: Learning together

What: The listening process is closely linked with collective learning. Together, the Cape York community and Cape York NRM use all of our collective information and knowledge to learn about what it all means. People already have a vast amount of knowledge, and we never stop learning about our environment, the cultural values of Cape York and how to work together for the greatest possible benefits. This collective learning step allows us to share skills and communicate people's knowledge, then use other information grow this knowledge to make the best decisions. The primary objective of the Atlas Toolbar is to foster this collective learning and add value to what people already know by communicating it to others.

Why: To facilitate collective learning, Cape York NRM connects with different sectors and sub-regions through several avenues. By far the best is meaningful one-on-one engagement and workshops, especially out in the field. Because of its importance, all operations staff work with multiple interest groups and landholders of Cape York. We often use a cluster approach, whereby we support multiple landholders and interest groups to come together in the field to discuss and implement specific land management issues, such as fire, water quality, biodiversity and weeds.

How: The tools we use to support learning include summarising and communicating the results of research, surveys, plans and field data. We support groups to build skills, knowledge and confidence through funding on-ground projects combined with mentoring and training. We also actively reflect on our processes by taking on-board the lessons, evaluation and feedback from workshops, activities and project reports.

Atlas sites: One of the main results of this collective learning process is the development of adaptation pathways to reduce the impact of climate change. You can follow this process on the Adapt: climate stories site.

Each year, Cape York NRM and Mulong Productions work with local Indigenous groups to host and deliver the Cape York Indigenous Fire Workshop. This promotes and demonstrates two-way collective learning between Indigenous ecological knowledge and Western science. The workshops draw over 100 people from across the globe.

We also support collaborative weed management between sectors, such as Wunthulpu and Yarraden station control of rubber vine and between groups such as through supporting and hosting the Western Cape Turtle Threat Abatement Alliance.

Look: Looking for people, resources and funding

What: Before starting any work, we need to find the right people, resources and finances to get the job done well. These involve the experienced and supportive neighbour and his tractor, our partners implementing management, but it also includes support and knowledge from others with specific skills sets. Some of the big challenges on Cape York require inputs from people within and outside the region, bringing extra knowledge, tools, equipment, scientific information and data that can improve decisions and outcomes of the work.

Why: Looking for alternatives to our current ways of doing things can substantially improve the results of our work and lead to new practices and opportunities. By getting appropriate resources and skilled people who share and build knowledge with the community, we can add to existing capacity and build our resilience to the coming changes. This is critical, particularly in regards to the impacts that from climate change.

How: In this step, we might use frameworks or tools built by other people, connect it with monitoring results and scientific recommendations, then identify the best action to take. To do this, we might use maps to locate where to act or check other plans to see where the actions can benefit multiple outcomes. We might find the key people to help or tap into established networks to support our actions. We would also look for the resources, equipment and extra investment or funding. 

Atlas sites: The Atlas Toolbar is great for identifying what to use and where. We have set up a list of local Cape York service providers on the Land Manager site.
The Who Plans Here site provides a spatial representation of the current and historic plans on Cape York. You can use this to see who is planning to do what, and where.
You can use the Cape York Map Previewer to see what your land looks like and what spatial information is available.

We sieve through a river of research to pull up the references that are most useful for the Cape. You can browse through many of these works through our online Reference Library.

We strive to provide useful information on the most important natural resource management issues on Cape York, for people to see what works and share and use ideas to develop their activities. You can view the case studies to see what initiatives Cape York NRM and our community partners are working on around the Cape.

Link: Working together to take action

What: Timing and circumstance can make the difference between a mediocre effort and a spectacular success. Part of our role is to provide assistance where and when required, as much as time and resources allow. The steps in this process are acting on the most relevant plans and working together to reach the next step in the adaptation pathway. Cape York NRM actively resources projects with equipment, people and funds to get the job done and supports on-ground efforts to monitor, evaluate and plan for the next stage.

Why: Cape York NRM works to deliver the best long-term outcomes as efficiently as possible. Unfortunately, we all have limited funds for managing natural and cultural resources. We see that the most efficient way to get the outcomes we are after is to use what we have - people. By working together, the outcomes of actions can be more effective and longer lasting, and we build great relationships at the same time.

How: Most of our activities are about coordinating actions across scales, with multiple skill sets and technical expertise. This includes bringing people together, working on the ground and actively planning in the field.

Atlas Sites: We communicate our activities through the Atlas Toolbar sites, newsletters and social media. Please check out the news and events section to see what we are currently doing.

We have a large compendium of project information, partner information and case studies on the Land Manager and home pages.

Triggering a rethink

As we continue ‘doing’, by coordinating actions with our partners, we will update this planning site and the ATLAS sites by summarising results from listening to community and our collective learning. Our intention is to continue to prioritise and re-prioritise on-ground activity as actions take place, enable the right capacity to support the implementation of projects and use continuous monitoring as a way to develop more intelligent and effective long-term management strategies.

Planning for change

Change is a constant. Our plan also needs to evolve to keep up with the changes, to keep it living. Some change we will do ourselves, and other changes will be put upon us. Between this current first iteration of our planning process, we will go through a series of steps to the next iteration. We will include increased results from our Your Climate project, through the analysis of interviews, listening to the stories from people across Cape York and reading community plans. We will also receive results from monitoring data, new information from surveys and lessons from projects that our staff and partners are currently doing. We will also continue to workshop climate change projections information with our partners and regional experts to improve our opportunities to build resilience and adapt. 

Planning with change

Inevitably there will be some unforeseeable changes along our path such as changes in government policy, sudden changes within our organisation, rapid changes in investment or natural disasters like floods, droughts or cyclones, increases in temperature or sea-level rise.

On the other hand, we might be successful in attracting funding, continue to build great partnerships, substantially improve skills and practices and achieve significant on-ground management practice change building resilience to respond to these changes.

As these changes impact the system, the planning by doing methodology will take on this new information and adjust accordingly to ensure that investment and effort is focused on the adaptation pathways to assist in working towards achieving the NRM targets. 

The Plan

Our Cape York Regional NRM plan is a high level living document that:

  • Identifies eight NRM targets and adaptation pathways to assist in reaching the targets. 
  • Communicates community-identified regional investment priorities. 
  • Is informed by plan and strategy documents across Cape York.
  • Explores key areas of vulnerability and resilience to climate change. 
  • Identifies key systems to target investment and opportunities for carbon abatement and sequestration. 
  • Provides access to information and tools to assist in the delivery of actions. 
  • Updates each year as projects are delivered and lessons are learned.


Directly connected to the plan is a series of 11 ATLAS sites that provide tools useful in planning across scales, communicating stories, sharing information and knowledge, engaging the community and evaluating the effectiveness of actions

Tools to facilitate Planning by Doing

To help us adapt to these changes, we use a set of tools to facilitate our response through planning and re-prioritising. The ATLAS consists of nine independent websites, which work together to collect and share information about land management on Cape York and provide tools to land managers to plan across scales, improve and target on-ground management and inform management actions. The tools allow users to understand and learn about their place of interest, its people, current actions and the environment.

These tools include:

Engagement and communications with the Cape York community and interest groups: get involved on the Land Manager site, sign up as a contributor, and check out news, projects, profiles and partners. 

Pausing for reflection on what's working and what's not: Who Plans HereTimelines and RIS.

Identifying and supporting clusters of like-minded individuals: Case studiesProjectsWalk the CatchmentSocial Sciences, Indigenous ecological knowledge and stories, and the fire site, characteristics and projects

Developing monitoring indicators and collection of data: monitoring and evaluation and projects.

Building trust with organisations, groups and individuals: Land Manager, partnersprojects and service providers.

Looking out for big changes, such as in policy or climate: regional climate scienceWho Plans Here and Cape York Climate Futures.

Documenting processes and reports: reference list, newsletter, annual reports and maps and data.

Mapping and analysis: map viewer and ecosystems, carbon and biodiversity maps.

Evaluations of programs and projects: project information, maps and data and RIS.

Technical studies: Maps and Data, reference library and climate science

Subregional planning: Who Plans Here, planning timeline and water.

Testing the process

We aren't just telling others how to plan and do, reflect and change. We are also operating within and across scales of planning ourselves. The current NRM plan is living, and while our targets might be stable, we might change how we reach them. So what's next for this NRM Plan?

We will continue to develop our understanding and implementation of fire management, improve our understanding of plant and animal distributions, continue the prioritisation of weeds and pests, and monitor and evaluate what we are achieving and share and communicate results with the Cape York NRM community.

We have started to develop a set of adaptation pathways, but these are not set. We are in the process of doing the Your Climate analysis, so this will be a next big step in informing our pathways and tools along with ongoing workshops with the community in using and interacting with the NRM targets and ATLAS sites.

We are also just starting to understand climate change and potential adaptation options. The next step for Cape York NRM is to ensure that we understand what the 200+ climate messages mean for Cape York, extract the messages relevant to the region and each sector, communicate them to the community groups we work with and provide the opportunity to redevelop or add to the key messages and climate science from local expertise and experience.