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TV – The Apprentice – I think big – therefore I am, the big I-am

lead me to your taker

lead me to your taker

Against my will and better judgement I started watching this very popular, very strange programme – and got hooked – for the worst of reasons. I will post my journey through the programme as it did raise interesting business and philosophical issues. If you didn’t see the programme the issues may be of interest, otherwise just ignore. There are six in all, including the final

(Zettel Sept 2008)

The Apprentice – review and analysis

Who in their right mind would want to work for SIR Alan Sugar? (His emphasis not mine). SIR Alan’s last essay into TV as I recall was a blatantly self-serving Ad about how he gave money to Great Ormond Street Hospital – so we should too. Even Philanthrophy needs a bit of PR – Personal Recognition.

This review is prompted by episode 4 in the current series when ex-Royal Artillery NCO Simon Smith was fired. The reason why this particular young man led me to put pen to paper is that he is the first in the dozen or so programmes I have watched to behave with honesty, honour, genuine candour and mature self-knowledge; the first not to whinge, cringe and blame everyone but himself. Nothing does this at times irritating and over-brash but honourable young man greater credit than to have been fired by Alan Sugar, sorry tremble tremble, SIR Alan Sugar; leaving the lying, cheating, deceitful, conceited, cowardly and duplicitous members of his team to not so much fight as wheedle and whinge on to what only a moral bankrupt would call success.

As The Apprentice is, week in week out, a virtually ethics-free zone, it was clear that Simon could not, should not win the shoddiest competition in the history of TV. That said and this stands in need of justification, The Apprentice is like a roadside car accident – you don’t want to look, you try not to look, but you can’t drag your eyes away. It’s worse, for watching the programme is intentional, unlike the randomness of RTAs.

The programme’s driving force, the engine of its fascination, its emotional hook – is schadenfreude – gleeful, gloating delight in the misfortune of others. And of course anyone putting themselves up for it – deserves everything they get. That one word – schadenfreude – would be enough for SIR Alan’s deep, inverted working class snobbery to dismiss anything written in this review as not worth reading. In the programme, driven by a carefully choreographed atmosphere and a toxic mixture of fear, greed and self-obsessed selfishness, intelligent young people are persuaded to cower, cow-tow and first cringe and then, God help us, emulate the bullying money-making machine before them.

You won’t believe this but I don’t have any personal animosity towards Mr Sugar: how could I, I don’t know him? But I do have a deep, profound distaste for the behaviour he exhibits in this often hilarious – if you like watching intelligent people do unbelievably stupid things – always absorbing, never dull, totally exploitative programme.

I know “well don’t watch!”. “Find the off-button you idiot.” Which is a way of saying does any of this matter? It’s just a TV programme right? One or two quotes on this:

“I never liked Alan. I always thought he was a bully. His values are in my view totally irrelevant to the needs of business. I watch his programme with horror. If I had behaved that way for one day at ICI, I’d have been hot-stuffed and rightly.”
(the late SirJohn Harvey-Jones)

“This doesn’t look like the future of British business but Sir Alan Sugar, the company’s founder, is the man whom Gordon Brown has chosen as a role model for children”.
(Daily Telegraph)

“There’s nothing wrong with being greedy, if you’re a businessman that’s what it’s about.”

If he had his way, children would still be smacked. “A good clip round the ear never hurt anybody, even by the teacher or the bobby. There needs to be a fear factor, you need to be intimidated by your teacher to behave. We indulge children too much. A lot of the young, including my apprentices on TV, have become spoilt and lazy. Parents do too much for them, they need a wake up call, they need to take responsibility.”
An A-level in (hamburger) flipping, he believes, is far more useful than one in classics or history. “Academic qualifications are meaningless, they are just a piece of paper that is presented to a human resources manager that says you have some brains.”
(SIR Alan Sugar)
If Sir John was right then the constant popularising of a distorted, false, disreputable concept of what business is and must be about; what management and leadership must look like, does matter especially as it seems SAS’s role as a business paradigm is approved by one Gordon Brown. If the explosion in the popularity of this programme continues we will soon have kids in schools, if they aren’t already, ‘playing SIR Alan.’

And if that doesn’t trouble you ladies try this one from the benign, gnomic, cuddly SAS:
“We have maternity laws where people are entitled to have too much. Everything has gone too far,” he says.
I know he plays up to it to help make the programme a ‘success’. I know he complains that the BBC wants him to ham it up. It is curious though that a man with personal assets the size of the economy of a small country, feels unable to stand up for what he really believes in about business, how one should actually behave. He’d fire one of the Sugar-fodder for that. Even in the conduct of the programme therefore we find a void where an ethical or moral belief, or sense of honour should be.

In every programme I’ve seen so far one or more contestant has blatantly lied in their teeth in a whingeing effort to pass the buck and the blame. Often this unedifying process takes on a momentum akin to a game of pass the parcel. Every week we see people not trying to be the best they can be, not trying to solve business problems with imagination and flair, nor trying to co-operate with others in sharing excellence in a common objective; but instead trying to lie, deceive, and undermine both the business objectives they have accepted and any poor fool in charge of anything who might as a consequence catch ‘God’s’ eye. They lie and deceive each other, SAS, and the customers if need be. That’s not apprenticeship – it’s corruption.
Leaving aside Sir Harvey-Jones’s personal dislike, and he, unlike me, did know the man; what about his more substantial point? “His values are in my view totally irrelevant to the needs of business.” Now there’s a proposition worth exploring.

I don’t know what Sir John Harvey-Jones had in mind but for me there is a philosophical fallacy lying at the heart of both the programme and SAS’s attitudes to business: a fallacy demonstrated graphically every week. This is the belief that everything that happens in business is a function of personality, will, personal determination and for SAS, hard graft. So when something goes wrong the first thing everyone does is blame someone. Things go wrong – someone gets fired. This attitude is the programme. Within a so-called team most of the time as soon a someone falls down or screws up, they all head for the door, literally or metaphorically. SAS is the arch-proponent of ‘command-control’ management – what has been rather well expressed as FIFO management – fit in or f*** off.

Episode 4 perfectly illustrated this witless and destructive belief. Simon’s team, surprisingly but he did it seems know better what would appeal to Bluewater customers than anyone else, with him at the camera, was generating loads of orders but couldn’t link the shots on the camera card to the customers. The team at the back hadn’t seen, so couldn’t recognise each customer and so could not connect shot to customer even though Simon manually recorded every shot reference from the camera. It appeared that the computer they were using did not read or display the shot codes from the memory card. This immediately became a personal issue: about Simon’s management style, obscurely according to Claire, connected with his sweating; or about her lack of respect for him or his management style; or the half-hearted support to him a group leader by the rest of the team. This generated more and more heat – and no light. No one seemed to notice this was simply a failure to properly understand, define and implement a critical process in their business. It is hard to imagine that they started selling photos before they had ever produced one. The correlation problem would have immediately come to light had they dry run a few trial orders first – understanding a key process; then they would have found a way to resolve it – defining process technically with a different camera or computer; and then set up an automated or even manual means to get correlated information to enable production of customer-specific pictures – managing process.

So misidentifying the problem – it became a bicker-fest and 2/3 hours shut down. So did SAS point this basic fact out? Not on your life – he went down the same route – who didn’t work hard enough? Who lied to whom? Who let whom down? Etc etc etc. The personal relationship problems in Simon’s team were of trivial relevance to the business problem they had first failed to anticipate by proper planning and then failed to identify during the actual day so they could solve it on their feet. So Simon was fired, accepting all the toffee about his personality and personal qualities perpetuated by SAS. You can’t will a correlation between customer and photograph; your personality won’t do anything to connect them; you can’t sell your way into a connection; you have to think it through, try it out and then make it work. Without the first two steps the third is useless. The fundamental weakness and fallacy of The Apprentice is that week in, week out the teams start, proceed and never stop, being preoccupied with the third step. So every week they miss or truncate the first two.

It would be hard to imagine a more simple, fundamental but critical mistake than the failure of process in Simon’s team. But yes folks here we go – the other team were even more stupid – they had dozens of orders but first had never tested the IT-critical process of turning shot into product. Not once before the day. Dumb enough – but then they gave the job to the one person in the group who had made it absolutely plain from the very start that she was not remotely IT/technology literate. And what was the problem when the inevitable s*** hit the inevitable fan? You got it they lied. And then – Lucinda was “lazy and incompetent” Helene “evil and domineering” etc etc. And the guys stayed schtumm. And did the paragon of business acumen SAS point out, find out, tease out the real problem? No way – let’s keep firing people till we get it right.

You can make people act out of fear SIR Alan dear – but fear is the implacable enemy of thought. You can’t frighten people into thinking; nor will they think well in a climate of fear. When you buy a pair of hands you get a brain free – the trick of leadership and management is not to waste the brain. SIR Alan Sugar will always if not waste, then seriously under-use the brains of his staff. Because as we saw in his bullying of Lucinda e.g like all action-men – he distrusts intelligence. He is a FIFO manager – and it has made him a lot of money, Good luck to him – but we really shouldn’t buy into the garbage that it is the only way to run anything, or the best way. Some, most businesses are more complicated than flogging TV dishes, digi-boxes or the like.

Yes I’ll still watch it – it is an object lesson on how not to do anything – from team-building, to managing, to intelligent planning. It gets just one thing right – how to flog things. Nothing wrong with that – but as our teams found – even if you want to flog something – you have to have something to flog. And episode 5 just finished displayed exactly the same gobsmackingly obvious points – only the teams and the products had been changed.
(Episode 4 – 18.9.08)

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