Summary In conservation management, ensuring that the most appropriate research is conducted and results are actually put into practice is a complex and challenging process. While there are success stories, many hurdles can reduce the likelihood of appropriate research being initiated and its findings communicated and implemented. This article describes the ideal research–management cycle, summarizes the major factors that impede it and draws on the experiences of the authors to provide a series of examples of successful approaches to help keep the cycle going. We consider that the major impediments to a functioning research–management cycle relate to a lack of collaboration, poor communication, inappropriate funding and political timelines, change inertia and a lack of capacity. Although addressing structural difficulties such as matching funding timelines to those required for ecological research is a fundamental challenge, we can make incremental improvements to the way in which we operate that will improve the chances that research is both useful and used. The principles underpinning our success stories are (i) strategic development of capacity, (ii) increased breadth and depth of collaborations between researchers and managers and (iii) improved communications. Participants in the research–management cycle must seek to involve stakeholders through all project stages from project conception, to implementation, evaluation and knowledge updating. Finally, we should only see the first iteration of the research process as complete when new knowledge is applied operationally with monitoring and ongoing evaluation in place.