Sunday, 14 February, 2021


Jamie Ounan

We believe that the best solutions are yet to be discovered and the best outcomes yet to be delivered. That is why we prepare organisations for change and help them implement it. We do this through an intimate understanding of their business, a relentless focus on delivery, the use of techniques that challenge the status quo and bridge traditional disciplines. We provide a range of services to public and private organisations including project and programme management, property consultancy, change management and strategy development and strategic advice. Contact us to discuss a project.

Sunday, 14 February 



What we’re seeing and what we’ve been up to 

Every day, public sector leaders are making hundreds of decisions, and as trusted advisors it is our job to help them get it right. Each decision is the key to the door of progress towards vital social, economic and environmental results. This Sunday Insight offers a brief summary of three books that we use to help take the very best decisions.   

Why this topic now? It’s not that we aren’t a romantic bunch on Valentine’s Day. It’s more than five weeks into this extraordinary lockdown 3.0 and conditions can and do skew the clearest of thinkers. Individual molehills can feel like mountains and the narrowed purview of our daily lives have many frustrations, like an impaired ability to ‘read the room’ on Zoom. However, more profoundly, we all carry core cognitive biases that can cost millions of pounds or impact dozens of lives in our line of business. So, after giving ourselves up to a little romance on Valentine’s Day, it’s back to some cold hard logic.  

What we’re learning and watching 

The Intelligence Trap, by David Robson examines the reasons why intelligent and educated people make stupid mistakes. This is a great leveller for anyone who thinks they’re smart. One of the standout terms in the book is ‘earned dogmatism.’ This captures the evidence-based analysis that a bolstered self-perception of expertise, often from a proven track record in one’s field, leads to increased closed mindedness and ultimately, bad decision-making. Our mind relies on shortcuts or heuristics to navigate through the day. However, that means we are carrying prejudice which too often turns out to cloud our decisions. Inner Circle has very deliberately deployed cross-sectoral experience and cross-sector thinking to our client advice and project planning to avoid falling into this type of trap. 

Superforecasting, by Gardner and Tetlock explores good judgement. We’ve covered this before on this blog, so will keep it light. Tetlock shows us that the average expert’s ability to make accurate predictions about the future is only slightly better than a layperson using random guesswork. Trying to follow the successes of superforecasters means breaking down problems; augmenting your inside knowledge with an outside view (zooming up to 10,000 ft and asking why?); systematically removing uncertainty through a sound understanding of probability; balancing prudence with decisiveness; and learning from failure.  

Black Box Thinking, by Matthew Syed is all about learning from failure i.e., the aviation industry. Primary to this is the willingness, and even tenacity, to investigate the lessons of why we fail. Indeed, it asks the simple yet brutal question of why industries, organisations and individuals would rather cover up failures than exploit the lessons learnt. The aviation industry teaches us to create systems and cultures that enable organisations to learn from errors, rather than being threatened by them. The Inner Circle Debrief, a session to explore what worked and what didn’t after every milestone or project completion, is core to our company culture and one of the first things you learn when joining our team.  

Syed’s book gives many interesting insights, including one’s ability to manage complexity. We are all stuck on the “ballistic model” of project planning and delivery i.e., we have a target, we aim for the bullseye, the smart ones account for forces such as gravity and wind, then we fire. In our experience, public policy and urban regeneration projects work in a similarly complex system. He suggests a better analogy is a guided missile. I’m not sure about military analogies however, the point being that after we fire, we can and should adjust for unforeseen factors. Preparation is key, but so is flexibility, agility, willingness to be transparent about progress, and ultimately learn during the delivery.  

This takes me to a fourth bonus book of this edition, and the one I’m reading right now: How to Run Government so that Citizen Benefits and Taxpayers Don’t go Crazy, by Michael Barber. Sir Michael Barber led the No. 10 Delivery Unit and has outstanding experience to share. He suggests everyone start with setting a small number of well-designed targets because if you prioritise everything you prioritise nothing, right? After confirming the targets are important but not “the point,” he gives a great framework for setting up a Delivery Unit. This is much more than a standard PMO. I take this as the guided missile team and not a group monitoring how far the ballistic project missed the target. In applying Barber’s framework to Syed’s approach, we see that a plan is important but it’s the planning that matters. So, aim for something that is good enough: do not get paralysed by perfection. One of my favourite elements is taking all excuses off the table. Shift “we’re already doing it” to “how come we have a problem then?” Or, change “you’re asking the impossible” to “they’ve done it before so what can we learn?” And finally, there is no substitute for sustained and disciplined political leadership. 

What’s going on 

This week seems like a seesaw in our sector as we saw some positive developments and hints of optimism and hope alongside reminders of tough financial challenges and service cuts ahead. Hard to make sense of it all but here’s a roundup of items that are worthy of attention… 

Last week, Collaborate, a Community Interest Group, launched the Hope Inquiry, a 12 month exploration into how we can use the collective learning, adaptation and ideas that have emerged from crisis to move closer to the vision of a #CollaborativeSociety. Count us in. 

Do investments in travel offices portend a bright future? Australian travel tech firm Vacaay is opening up a new London office as an integral part of their global growth strategy, with the concentration of tourism boards, airlines & tour operators being the springboard for international markets. We can’t comment on how close the UK is to encouraging overseas holidays however the thought of a sunny beach is certainly keeping us going. 

At least 12 English councils are in rescue talks as Covid-19 continues to shatter local finances. As the FT suggests, this number could be the “tip of the iceberg” amid a drastic fall in revenue and loss of payments during pandemic. This is on the heels of Croydon’s Section 114 Notice just a few short months ago. 

Stockton is showing the rest of the world how to pivot, embrace the new economy, and invest in citizen wellbeing for the long-term. Stockton Borough Council wants to create an urban park three times the size of Trafalgar Square on the site of a 1970s building. The Council plans to demolish half its town centre high street and replace it with a £37m riverside park. It’s bold, ambitious, and a daring experiment for the future of our town centres.  

Finally, there is an excellent webinar coming up on Tuesday 16 Feb, “Making Safe Spaces for Learning” brought to you by the good folks at The Voice of Authority. Panellists will be exploring “best in class” current learning environments, including England’s largest school, and one of its best performing, and some of the academic thinking underpinning best practice. Learn how lockdowns, self-isolation and social distancing have affected that practice, for better and for worse. You can register here.