Harder, better, faster, stronger

Harder, better, faster, stronger

Ahead of our fourth challenge, we received an email from the LGA warning us to bring “suitable footwear and waterproofs”. We were going outside, and the forecast wasn’t good.

But when we arrived in Gloucester, the sun was shining, the surroundings were pretty and after a stroll from the station we find ourselves in the most luxurious Council buildings so far. The converted warehouse on the docks where Gloucester City Council is based was quite different to our experiences elsewhere, and very different to working in Coventry where you are lucky to stumble across a working toilet or a room that is somewhere in between a fridge and a sauna.

glos docks
The Council building in a converted warehouse at the Gloucester docks

After a leisurely morning, things got very serious very quickly – the pace was fast, and the challenge was hard. We were divided up into teams – I was on Team Dynamic with Catherine A, Denise, Alison and Eleanor (who was a stand-in from the LGA as Dan couldn’t make it), and the challenge was set. We had to come up with a proposal for how to develop the Fleece, a 500 year old hotel with an interesting and characterful past, which had fallen into disrepair and was currently costing the Council a significant amount of money to maintain. We also had to present a strategy for ensuring that the benefits of the Council’s wider regeneration work would be felt by all, especially the city’s most deprived and vulnerable residents.  This was a challenge about social as well as physical regeneration, and about taking an asset based approach throughout the Council’s work.

After that, we were off for a VIP tour of Gloucester. As well as going in the cathedral, we got to climb on the cathedral. With our hard hats on, we scaled the walls and climbed up the scaffolding to get a good view of the work being done to restore the cathedral. We were accompanied by Oliver, an apprentice stone mason, who knew lots about stone, and lots about the cathedral, and he also took us to his workshop where we could have ago at chipping away at the stone ourselves!

glos cathedral
Gloucester cathedral

Next on the agenda the Hub Bistro – a not-for-profit community café run by a mixture of paid staff and volunteers who are in recovery and / or learning new skills to help them return to long term employment. It turned out we had already sampled the some products from the Hub, as they provide catering for the Council and so had supplied our lunch that day! It was a very interesting example of how an asset based approach can really work, as well as an example of a thriving Recovery Community which is an exciting model we could look to follow back in Coventry.

The final stop on our tour (at least for the time being), was the Fleece itself. We had already heard a bit about the Fleece – it was first opened in 1497 and was one of the three major inns of Gloucester which housed pilgrims visiting the tomb on Edward II. Parts of the building are grade I and grade II listed, and was purchased by the Council in 2011 after remaining empty for nine years. Various proposals have been put forward to bring the Fleece back to use, but no plans had yet come to fruition. What looked diminutive and unassuming from the outside turned out to be a sprawling maze of history and surprise on the inside – a kind of hidden diamond in the rough. This wasn’t simple and it wasn’t going to be easy. We were shown around by the brilliant Iona, who was like an encyclopaedia of knowledge and took us around every nook and cranny of the building, as well as answering our many, many questions.

glos fleece
The Fleece, from different angles

Back at base we only had a few minutes of team time to come together and gather our thoughts. We had quite a lot of ideas about how we could develop the Fleece, and it seemed like there was space to do everything. Houses, shops, a café, a bar, a community space, a museum, a new performance venue… we wanted to open up the space, bring the history back to life, link the building to the cathedral and the docks via a historical trail, and involve the community in both the rebuild and in the design and use of the new spaces.

With a few ideas down on paper we headed off to dinner with the Leader of the Council, the Deputy Leader, the Cabinet member for culture and one of the Corporate Directors. I got talking to the Cabinet member for culture who shared her aims and aspirations for Gloucester to become a cultural hub, and the need for a new performance venue in the city, which struck a definite chord with our plans.

When we finished dinner, we found that the night was still young. We all went to visit Blackfriars Priory, the site of a medieval monument which has been renovated and now hosts weddings and other activities. It was inspirational to see how the buildings had been transformed and how they are run today – not with a huge budget, but with a huge amount of goodwill and community involvement.

glos blackfriars
Looking round Blackfriars with the other contestants

After a final catch up in Catherine’s room to decide who was going to do what next (and a bit of worrying that we’d concentrated too much on our plans for the Fleece, and not enough on the wider elements of the presentation), we went off to get a bit of sleep before another big day.


We were up bright and early on day two, and had a few minutes to catch our breath, divide up the tasks and highlight the important questions to ask in the stakeholder speed dating at 9am. We then had 45 minutes with some important stakeholders, including representatives from the County Council, the Police and the culture sector to test our ideas.

Then it was a race to the finish – Alison and I worked on the proposal, then we all came together to finish off the presentation. We found the presentation particularly challenging – we were grappling with some very complex strategic issues without the time or space to reflect and give it serious thought. We all had different views about how the presentation should be. Should it be structured around the questions in the brief, or structured in a way that would flow well?  Should we put all the text we need on the slides, or use visuals and minimal text instead? Should we all take it in turns to present, or should Eleanor keep time and move the slides?

After a short amount of time to practice, we found ourselves in front of the judges presenting our ideas. We had worked very hard, very fast and it was nerve wracking to see everyone we’d met over the last two days in the audience. We did our best to present and answer our questions, but with such limited time to prepare and so many ideas, it felt as though we weren’t as structured as we could have been and were struggling with nerves.

After hoping for the best but expecting the worst, we were told the judges were split. They had had different views about what they wanted from our proposals, and so different judges voted in different ways. Head judge / Alan Sugar equivalent Claire Holloway elected not to cast the deciding vote, so put the decision to the audience, who voted overwhelmingly for Team Inspire (the other team).

We were disappointed not to win it, but we’d had a fabulous couple of days scaling buildings and enjoying the sights of Gloucester. We’d worked very hard, very fast and I felt much happier with my own performance than I had in Harrow or in Swafford. Despite losing the challenge, the dynamic of Team Dynamic was a much happier place to be – it was stronger than before, and I felt satisfied with the effort I’d made both as an individual and on behalf of the team.


So why didn’t we win, and what can we learn? At the end of the day two, Ami mentioned a few key things that contributed to our defeat, which we can and will take into account on the final challenge:

  1. Different strokes for different folks – the judges were split, so it wasn’t a clean sweep for Team Inspire. Two judges preferred our team’s efforts, the others thought team Inspire had followed the brief better. The judges had different perspectives and views about what they wanted to get out of the challenge, and how they were expecting us to address it. We felt we were on the right lines (and some of the judges agreed), but ultimately, everyone is looking for something different, and you can’t please them all.
  2. Focusing on the big picture – there were two parts to the challenge, and we got very preoccupied with developing a plan for the Fleece. It was interesting, it was tangible, it was exciting, and it captured our imagination. I’ve even spent most of this post writing about it! We needed to be much more focused on the bigger issue of social as well as economic regeneration. It was a harder question – less tangible, less obvious, but we needed to make that the focus of our thinking rather than the other way round.
  3. Presentation, presentation, presentation – if we had spent more time thinking about the bigger picture, we’d have found it much easier to put our presentation together and to sell our ideas. The audience who had the deciding vote on which team should win hadn’t read our proposal – they were judging the presentation alone – and we weren’t as good as the other team. They were slicker, better prepared and their presentation had a better structure. We may have had a lot of great, creative ideas, but we didn’t sell them as well as they did.

Compared to the previous challenges, Gloucester was harder – two slightly different (although connected) challenges, minimal team time and very complex tasks. It was also better – we got to see so much of Gloucester, meet so many people and we genuinely had a nice time (even if it’s not meant to be fun!). We had to work much faster than ever before, but as both a team and as individuals, but we came out of it stronger. Losing the challenge wasn’t a positive feeling, and I hope it doesn’t happen again, but I know that we did our best, we’ll learn from it, and next time we’ll do even better.

Our next and final challenge takes place on the 15th-16th June at the West Midlands Combined Authority. I’ve learnt a lot over the last few months, and I’m hoping I can put all the lessons I’ve learned to good use to win it for the last time.


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