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The Apprentice Is Back On BBC1, And In Desperate Need Of Some Agility

This month has seen the return of the Apprentice on BBC1, with both the good and the bad that it represents.

Now, let’s start by being fair. Each of the contestants already has their own business and is willing to put themselves up to national ridicule in order to further their ambitions, so fair play to them for that.
And, the Apprentice is a television format that has lasted many years and still pulls in high numbers of viewers, so those who created and make it deserve maximum credit for producing such entertaining television.


Finally of course, let’s not forget Alan Sugar, a man with a stellar track record in business (Spurs associations aside) who has earned his stripes the hard way.

Caveats over.

For me, watching the Apprentice is like watching the business world circa 1985. I keep expecting a DeLorean to appear on screen. My daughter, who is 9, was watching it with me and asked numerous times “is this what it’s like when you go to work, Dad?”

It suddenly dawned on me, that the mass media’s biggest selling product about what it takes to start your own business is in fact selling an outmoded, dysfunctional, isolated, combative view of the world, not the 21st Century reality.

Let’s start with the candidates. Almost every behaviour they exhibit is anathema to the types of behaviours the Agile world espouses. Here’s some examples:

  1. Agile people think of the team goal and not themselves: At the beginning of each episode, a group of people sit in a room together and nominate a Project Manager. Except they don’t nominate at all. They don’t consider strengths and weaknesses. What usually ensues is a series of monologues about why “I should be Project Manager” which demonstrates how everyone is thinking about themselves over the wider team objective.
  2. Agile people know that they don’t know everything and they embrace others’ opinions: When was the last time you ever saw this happening on the Apprentice? It is a programme where everyone believes they know everything and treats everyone else’s opinions as worthless.
  3. Agile people are self confident, but never arrogant: Hmmmm, to me the candidates seem to exhibit a lot of arrogance.
  4. Agile people listen without interruption and don’t pre-judge: Blimey, does this one even need a comment?!!?

I mean the list goes on and on, you could pick another 10 Agile behaviours with the same results. The reality is that the route to team success that we usually witness in the Apprentice is one which values all the wrong values! Is this what we want our children thinking makes for a successful business?

Let’s look at Episode 1 and the failure of the Yellow Team. For those who didn’t watch it, the teams had to get up at 2 AM, buy some fish from Billingsgate, make some lunch dishes and flog them, the winner being the team who made the most money. Here’s 5 lessons I learnt from it:

  1. Initially, the PM put herself forward for this role because she wrote a food blog, while the team member who had actually been a fish chef in a past life kept quiet. This is illustrative of how a team needs to communicate in an open and transparent manner to get the best out of the individuals and capabilities within it.
  2. The PM was presented with lots of ideas for possible dishes, but chose to ignore them all and stuck to her own opinions because she believed she was right. There was no dialogue or debate and it was wonderfully illustrative of a Command and Control environment.
  3. When entering Billingsgate, the PM brought the first fish they found, without looking around for a better deal when all her team were telling her to shop around. She dismissed their opinions and showed exactly how NOT to work in a collaborative team environment.
  4. They were meant to make 300 fishcakes with their ingredients but only produced 75. The chef was producing fishcakes the size of footballs. When challenged he responded “I’m following the specification” an argument he later used in the boardroom with Lord Sugar. When Software is clearly not right for the business, but we are “following the specification” do we simply carry on regardless? This was illustrative of the kind of inflexibility and dogmatic approach that Waterfall provides compared to Agile.
  5. Then worst of all, when the Tuna was ready to be sold, they didn’t send it out, because they wanted to wait for the fishcakes to be ready, which were late. Accordingly they arrived at 1.30 PM for the (missed) lunch trade, which sealed their doom. Has no one heard of providing working software quickly? Again, this was illustrative of classic Waterfall thinking.

At the end, waiting to be fired, were three people - the PM, the chef and Dan who didn’t seem to have done anything at all and was as far from being a T-shaped person as it’s possible to be. Ultimately Dan’s inactivity earned him the chop. But for me, and many of my colleagues, all three of them should have been fired.

After the programme finished I paused and asked myself the same question I asked earlier. Is the Apprentice clouding our kids’ understanding of what makes business work?

Actually, perhaps not. Because based on Episode 1, where the failure of the task was complete, it’s simply beyond me how anyone could think the behaviours and approaches the team demonstrated were effective.

In fact, on reflection, maybe the Apprentice is just about the best advocate for Agile that any of us have.

Viva Lord Sugar!


Gustav Bjorkeroth

Gustav Bjorkeroth

“What I enjoy about life at Radtac is working with some of the most motivated and innovative people in the industry today” Gus is first and foremost a Dad to 3 young kids, a lover of early German (and slightly niche) electronic music and a big armchair sports fan. When he is not droning on about Leicester City Football Club, the England Cricket Team or starting an office fight over politics, he is occasionally found doing a bit of work! Gus is responsible at Radtac for the development and management of our Radtac Certified Associate offering and for the delivery of strategic business initiatives. He splits his time between our London and Leeds offices. Gus brings to Radtac a wealth of experience in sales, talent management and project delivery. Before joining Radtac, Gus worked for a number of entrepreneurial services companies, and founded and built a recruitment business. Gus is a CSM, CSPO and Scaled Agilist. Read more