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Reflections on the second cohort of the Excellence in Place Leadership programme

12 January 2022

The second cohort of the ADEPT Amey Excellence in Place Leadership (EiPL) programme, which brings together forward-thinking thought leaders from across ADEPT to examine the ‘wicked issues’ affecting the sector, has just ended. Neil Gibson, its facilitator, reflects on the success of the programme so far.

The EiPL programme, co-produced by ADEPT and Amey, was jointly launched in 2020. ADEPT’s objective was to support members, giving them the time to think creatively, learn from others, and to challenge the way they currently do things, with the goal of driving innovation among Place sector leaders. The first cohort ran that year, and the second cohort ran during 2021.

Demand for a place on the second cohort was high. To gain a place, we maintained the competitivity we introduced to select the first cohort. Candidates had to demonstrate that this was the right programme for them, committed and would bring an intellectual contribution to the group. We have found the optimum number is 10-15 people, creating a strong dynamic and foundation, while maintaining exclusivity.  

Broadly, the programme format remained the same for each session: a problem or issue was introduced and discussed, allowing the team to build their knowledge, then respond to problem statements or a brief by working together.

A wide range of high calibre thought leaders, who all gave their time voluntarily, made invaluable perspectives in each of the sessions. Three per session or 12 over the year. My personal thanks to every one of them: they helped set fire to the thinking and are a critical component of the programme. Incidentally, one of the contributors was so impressed with the programme, that they applied, and were selected, to join cohort 3!

The rest of each session was split into a series of intensive workshops, where the group responded to problem statements and created a series of potential solutions or strategies to take forward. We also introduced them to several future scenario planning and horizon scanning tools that many hadn’t used before, which they could then apply in their day jobs.

Again, we started from the principle that we did not want to be prescriptive – it was important for the group to shape the content themselves. We therefore kept fluidity in the programme, just choosing the topics and speakers for the first session, with the group selecting the future topics. We had to remind the group of the ground rules – that EiPL is not necessarily about solutions, it is about the process of exploring conceptual ideas, analysing problems and everyone’s contribution is valued.

The cohort adopted ‘Building Back Better’ as their overall theme for the year and wanted to re-imagine the renewal of nature conservation, our organisations and our high streets and towns. For the final session we used Walsall as a case study, adopting a ‘masterclass’ format to the session. Many thanks to the team at Walsall MBC for having us.

Another key principle remained the same, which was around developing tangible outputs at the end of each session. This ranged from blog pieces, to toolkits, to written documents. This continues to be a critical part of the programme, ensuring that the thinking continues outside of the sessions and that the learning continues when people were back doing the day job. The outcome from session 3 on organisational renewal in a post-pandemic world has proven to be particularly useful and became the basis of one of the workshops in the ADEPT 2021 Autumn Conference – facilitated by two of the cohort members!

Like the previous cohort, participants really welcomed the opportunity to take time out to think. Issues were raised that were fresh, live, and relevant and they were able to apply critical thinking.

Over the year, I also noticed several differences between the two cohorts and how they operated. When we began, the profile of the second cohort differed from the first, with a more reflective approach. As the year progressed, interaction and synergy between the participants developed, with strong working relationships forming throughout the programme, which I believe will be sustained.

Another key difference between cohorts was around face-to-face interaction. While the first group had met in person before Covid-19 and social distancing hit, the second group’s initial three sessions were held virtually – so it was almost reversed. When the group met in person for their final session, it was as though they had met before. They had already formed a strong bond through the virtual sessions – although, there were some comments along of the lines of: “I thought you were taller in real life”!

Holding the sessions virtually wasn’t an impediment, but as a facilitator this meant we had to work harder at building trust among participants, giving them space to interact. We recreated a space where everyone could talk informally, helping the group to get to know each other – this usually happens during the coffee breaks at a physical event, so it was important this element was still there.

There was a high level of commitment to the programme which we were encouraged by – despite the additional pressure around Covid-19, participants were enthusiastic, and attendance was strong.

It is clear to me that there is an increased blurring between the public and the private sectors, particularly in the Place sector. This is why I think EiPL is so important: the willingness of the private sector to invest in the programme shows a commitment towards working together as a team.

Like the first cohort, the group developed into a supportive, trusted network and they will continue this, working together on a regular basis. There are also discussions on how to connect the alumni from both cohorts, to create a ‘super league’ of EiPL graduates. Building an academy of alumni thought leaders, all grown from the EiPL programme is an exciting thought.

The highlights for me were the energy and commitment shown to EiPL. Despite the additional pressures on everyone brought about by Covid-19, each participant showed resilience, determination, and passion. They were all stars quite frankly, and all a credit to the public sector.

ADEPT and Amey will continue to collaborate on delivering a third programme during 2022. As we approach the first session, I am excited to see what areas this cohort will investigate, the new ideas they will have and what outputs EiPL will achieve this year.

You can find out more about the EiPL programme here.