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Take a chair, Tom: The Apprentice Final

The series was a missed opportunity for the BBC – and Lord Sugar – to combine entertainment and learning, says Dave Wakely.

Cartoon shows Lord Sugar next to money-filled taxi saying:

After thirteen weeks, I can take that fork out of my leg and celebrate: we have a winner. As the four finalists presented their business plans to Lord Sugar’s hired human ‘demolition balls’ (thankfully, with the emphasis on the demolition – His Lordship’s testicular fetishism has rivalled Gordon Ramsay’s in this series), it went mostly as you’d expect.

Jim (despite the revelation of a real concern for decent business education for school children, witnessed by his own voluntary unpaid efforts) produced a detailed seduction note to AMS, liberating his initials, and spewing clichés like a binge thinker: there was a germ of an idea, although possibly a non-profit or public sector idea, but there was no market research. His response to the Blessed Margaret’s request to describe himself without using clichés – “I am what it says on the tin” – was pure comedy: the edit in a gentlemanly fashion spared Margaret from having her despairing facepalm shown to the nation.

Susan buried some nuggets of wisdom, and a successful trading history, in a candyfloss of enthusiasm: her projected turnover and profit figures had a huge element of soufflé about them. Her flaws – naiveté and a breezy way with detail – weren’t fully countered by her strengths: genuine entrepreneurial drive and spirit, tenacity and zest, and a largely unrewarded ability to see and make sense (even if that sense sparks rather fitfully).

'The final wasn’t the culmination of a series of tasks, but a dramatic sharp turn'


Helen was designated The Woman Who’d Have Won Any Other Year, which I’m sure cheered her up no end. Poised, polished, elegant, efficient and charming, she produced a business plan that was total begonias from beginning to end. His Sweetness was visibly a bit gutted. (I half expected him to say “I’m sick as a parrot, Brian”, like a deflated football manager). Invincibly knowledgeable about bakery and pies, she suggested a concierge service – remarkably similar to several that I spent the early noughties trying to talk a number of would be dot.com millionaires out of launching. And at least I got paid for organising the graphic design and the programming. You’d hire her as a PA in an instant, but you probably wouldn’t lend her 250 grand to start anything but a chain of pie stands.

Tom’s business plan was, it seems, little better, but he won for being a man whose skills complement Sugar’s: innovation and product development. His Lordship is a product man, as he said himself. A business plan for a chair that forgot to use the word ‘chair’ suggests there’s work to be done, but at least it’s work that has somewhere to lead. (Although a fiver says it might not be a marriage made in heaven, or a long-lasting one.) Tom’s winning performance in the final boardroom encounter was also a coup de grâce: geeks don’t necessarily always pick their moment, but when they do they pick them with scientific precision. (No Helen, the final showdown is not the time to field Business Plan B (posh bakeries)). Good luck to them both and, speaking as a guitarist, I look forward to a nail file designed specifically for the needs of the finger-picker. And they can have that idea for free.

The problem isn’t the winner, it’s the series. The prize is fundamentally different – a business partnership. The final – not a task, but a grilling on their plan – wasn’t the culmination of a series of tasks, but a dramatic sharp turn. The series, with the exception of the preceding episode (selling pies, Helen: do pay attention), didn’t lead up to this year’s final or prize. Throughout our reviews of the series, we’ve suggested alternative approaches that might have been educational about business for both contestants and audience. Show the contestants in their current roles: past performance isn’t a predictor of the future, but it’s at least as valid an observation as a spurious task. But there is a more sea-going suggestion to be made.

Given Nick’s comments about the programme’s role as encourager of entrepreneurialism, Sugar’s role as Gordon Brown’s former Enterprise Tsar, and particularly Margaret Mountford’s role as a Trustee of the Bright Ideas Trust,  what we need is a programme that episode by episode allows a group of contestants – possibly fewer of them – to refine and review a fledgling plan as they add a new skill, knowledge or angle to their personal portfolio. Judging the pies episode with an industry panel of experts was just a fragmentary example of how this could be implemented: feedback is more educational than a bald bottom-line, after all. As Lord Sugar said in this year’s final: "The current business idea needs tweaking and that’s what business is all about."

TV is not short of people humiliating themselves for our ‘entertainment’. But business is short of people with well-thought-through ideas that can be developed into businesses which generate trivial little things like employment, growth and export revenue. The Apprentice 2011 left me with the lingering impression that most of the people involved with the programme knew this perfectly well, but went for the easy option.

As one of the watching audience, that feels like a shame and – something Lord Sugar would surely loathe – a missed opportunity. There’s a gap in the telly market for something amusing to watch that the audience can really learn from. Let’s hope someone at the BBC encourages Lord Sugar’s production team to have a stab at filling it.

Dave Wakely 21 July 2011

You can find the full version of this post on the Don’t Compromise blog.

Dave Wakely is a former Open University Project Control Assistant. He now edits and writes the Don't Compromise blog for ASK Europe plc, a Cranfield-based leadership and organisational development consultancy. 

Cartoon: Gary Edwards

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The series was a missed opportunity for the BBC – and Lord Sugar – to combine entertainment and learning, says Dave Wakely. After thirteen weeks, I can take that fork out of my leg and celebrate: we have a winner. As the four finalists presented their business plans to Lord Sugar’s hired human ‘demolition balls’ (thankfully, with the ...

New bottles, old whine: review of The Apprentice episode 7

What did engineers ever do for us?  Those vying to be the next apprentice may have moved on to new tasks but 'Suralan's decision to sack someone for being an enginner continues to rankle with Dave Wakely. Dave is a former Open University Project Control Assistant. He now edits and writes the Don't Compromise blog for ASK Europe plc, a Cranfield-based leadership and organisational development consultancy.  

The task was all about breathing life into a tired media format where the Boston Matrix would reveal an over-abundance of Problem Children and Dogs: ‘freemiums’ –  freebie mags that exist on advertising revenue as they’ve already calculated that no-one would pay to read them. There are many criticisms of The Apprentice – and I’ve written quite a few of them – but you can’t argue that it isn’t generous in giving its critics copious ammunition to throw back at it.

Being reasonable (words that always indicate someone is about to be anything but …), this episode did see a drop-off in the verbal handbagging and Most Cliches Per Minute In A Taxi elements. It was, for once, rather less like seeing a plain dress version of It’s A Knockout: I actually made it through a full hour without my brain once thinking “Here come the Belgians!”. But the clangers still outnumbered the soupdragons.

 The focus group activity underlined the programme’s predeliction with everything being possible in the shortest possible time period. Half a rugby team for one team (producing something like Viz producing an issue of Nuts), and a bowls team for the other. Neither were really listened to, although the lads’ mag team at least understood their own questions, if not necessarily the answers. Still, by refusing to over-estimate the readers’ intelligence, the lads’ mag did demonstrate they’d learn at least one lesson from the programme they were on (two actually: they did an article on how to make a grand in a day), and won the task.

Jedi Jim’s team, meanwhile started with the germ of an ironic idea (calling the mag Hip Replacement) that they then undermined with a covershot with cardigans and articles about pensions. His Royal Sweetness was not impressed. They lost by quite a margin with the advertising sales brokers too. But from the office straw poll here, the problem with the episode was in the boardroom. Jim was fingered for his over-obvious desire to take the glory but share the blame selflessly, and for a manipulative approach to those he worked with. The neutering of content and the complete failure to countenance discounting from the ad card rate were very much his ideas, but he cast around for someone to delegate them to – and then stayed.

 

Apprentice cartoon

Glen, meanwhile, was fired essentially for being an engineer. Lord Sugar doesn’t think they can do business. Lord Sugar hasn’t, I suspect, pondered his reflection in that Rolls Royce he’s so fond of. Lovely bit of engineering that, Siralun. World famous, profitable, English, hugely revered. Needless to say, a few successful British engineers have been a bit miffed. James Dyson vented steam in The Guardian, saying:  "British companies such as Rolls-Royce, ARM and JCB are world leaders and they create jobs, technology and cash. And yet those who trade for a living still hold more respect than those who make things. But unless we invent and make more, Britain will have nothing left to export and our deficit will continue to grow. I understand the value of a good deal, but it's a shame our trains now need to be made in Germany rather than Derby."

New Civil Engineer magazine wasn’t too impressed either, observing that “the preview of next week’s episode contained clips showing the contestants travelling to France from St Pancras Station, a symbol of engineering success.” (What were we saying about that Roller?) Some of the sharpest comments went to commenters to The Telegraph’s piece, who pointed out a historical example of a real apprentice (James Watt) and that Sugar’s portfolio is mostly in property (“that makes him a rentier. Part of the problem rather than the solution”) and managed to recall such historic non-entities as Brunel, Sony, Honda …

So that’s the engineering entrepreneurialism challenge sorted. What’s next? Standards of light entertainment and management journalism? Anyone know any fish and chip shop managers we give 48 hours to sort it out?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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What did engineers ever do for us?  Those vying to be the next apprentice may have moved on to new tasks but 'Suralan's decision to sack someone for being an enginner continues to rankle with Dave Wakely. Dave is a former Open University Project Control Assistant. He now edits and writes the Don't Compromise blog for ASK Europe plc, a Cranfield-based leadership and ...

Missing out because I don't catch the news?

Steven Primrose-Smith in Prague

I'm currently about 3,500 kilometres into this trip, in the heart of the Czech Republic, 100 kilometres south-east of Prague with 300 kilometres until my next capital, Bratislava, in Slovakia. The legs feel strong, the bike is holding up and the sun continues to shine. The only thing is that I'm losing track of what's going on. Living in campsites with only the occasional hotel stay, and then with the TV news in a foreign language, I'm missing the big stories. When I manage to get an internet connection - which hasn't been easy outside of the cities - I spend my time updating the blog or posting photos on Facebook. This could be dangerous. I cycled right through a deadly vegetable epidemic in Germany a week ago and didn't even realise it. Apparently, according to the BBC, merely looking at a cucumber could have induced gangrene in my eyes and caused my feet to drop off. It's just as well I've been living off Snickers Bars and tins of goulash and haven't touched anything fresh for weeks. So I'm completely free of E. coli although I suspect I have a touch of scurvy.

But should this ignorance be anything to worry about? I don't think so. The media has a single function: to keep itself important enough that it can keep on selling itself. When one chicken has a slight cough in Hong Kong, suddenly you and all your friends are going to die of bird flu. When a sombrero-wearing piglet gets a runny nose we're all knocking back the Tamiflu like M&Ms. None of it amounted to anything, which isn't to say that it couldn't have, but perhaps we shouldn't start panicking until there's a bloke pushing a wheelbarrow through the streets crying "bring out your dead!"

So how worried should you be about E. coli? Have you had second thoughts about buying that tomato? Well, to put it into perspective, more people will die in the UK this weekend in road accidents than have died in total throughout Europe from the E. coli outbreak since it started. I doubt that this is going to stop you getting into your car, although you might still be reluctant to fill it with lettuce. Maybe you're right to be reluctant. It could be the overfilling of cars with lettuce that's causing all the accidents.

Cycle of fear and misery

Would the financial crisis have been as bad without media involvement? If we're suddenly told that a recession is on its way we naturally ease off on the spending. We cook ourselves a meal at home rather than go out for dinner. We put off buying that new car. And by doing that we bring about the very thing that we were warned would happen. Businesses get less income, which means they have to lay off people, who, now unemployed, can't afford to spend. It's a cycle of fear and misery created by a reaction to a hyped up story. Had we not known that the bankers had ruined the country, we would have still gone for that meal, or bought that car (or bicycle, in my case). A recession may still have arrived, but it wouldn't have been as bad as the one that did. And bankers might still have had some friends, although that's unlikely.

I remember when I moved to Austria 15 years ago. When I first started there I couldn't speak any German at all. As a work environment it was blissful. I got on with my job and I remember telling friends how much better than the UK it was because there seemed to be no office politics. But, obvious to me now, it was just linguistic ignorance. As time went on, my German improved and only then could I hear what people were yabbering about. It was the same old negative, back-biting nonsense that happens everywhere. And like the stories about bird flu and recessions they weren't worth getting involved with, but that's easier said than done, whether the news is your imminent death or who Gudrun in accounts is currently knocking off.

The problem is that some of the facts that accompany the hype are quite important. Should a war break out between Slovakia and Austria next week I'd probably like to know. I think it would almost certainly affect my route planning. It's just a pity the media cannot separate the facts from the hype. Perhaps the real problem is rolling 24 hour news. They've created so much space to fill that there isn't enough news to fill it. All of which means they’re forced to invent a crisis where only a slight difficulty exists. Molehills go in; mountains come out.

So I'm going to keep myself tuned out. I don't have much option for the next week or two anyway. Czech is the most impenetrable and exotic language I've come across on this trip. My attempts so far have been limited to ordering beer and pizza, and asking for directions, which, to be fair, is about the depth of my worldly concern right now. But even when I'm back in German, French or Spanish-speaking countries, when a newspaper could at least give me a flavour of what's going on, I don't think I'll bother. The world's a much happier place like this. If you don't see it happen, then it doesn't happen. But I'm going to be flying out of Switzerland's largest city for a residential in Nottingham soon and so if aliens invade Zurich before the beginning of July, please feel free to drop me an email.

 

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I'm currently about 3,500 kilometres into this trip, in the heart of the Czech Republic, 100 kilometres south-east of Prague with 300 kilometres until my next capital, Bratislava, in Slovakia. The legs feel strong, the bike is holding up and the sun continues to shine. The only thing is that I'm losing track of what's going on. Living in campsites with only the occasional ...