Why I will never be “The Apprentice”

Tuesday, 14 December, 2010

I’ll admit it – I’m addicted to watching “The Apprentice”.

For any Brits who have managed to miss out for the last six series broadcast in the UK, the self-made millionaire and businessman Lord Sugar gradually trims sixteen candidates down to a single person who wins a high-paid job working for one of Lord Sugar’s many companies. This is done through a series of intense business-focused tasks that are designed to allow the candidates to either excel or crumble. The BBC do this in a very well edited format which airs as a one-hour television episode each week, which inevitably ends with a board-room climax and the immortal words “you’re fired”.

But there is a general trend which addicts like me have noticed ever since series one was first broadcast in 2005. The role of “project manager” in an apprentice team has become the poisoned chalice. Nobody gets through the competition without taking their turn in this role, but inevitably the quality of the candidate is assessed on the success or failure of a particular task and their ability (or inability) to lead a team. The diversity of the candidates is healthy. Some are great salespeople, some are great presenters but only a few are good team leaders. The unfortunate thing is that occasionally a good leader (even when recognised by their own team) is eliminated from the process because they have the title “project manager”.

As project manager you have to take responsibility for the failure of this task”
– Lord Sugar

The extra burden and pressure of assuming this role exposes that person not only to the watchful eye of Lord Sugar and his advisors, but also to other team members who look to the project manager as an easy target if the task ends in failure. The project manager automatically assumes a defensive position from the outset, as the team except very little collective responsibility for the end result.

“If we win, we will all be on a treat. If we lose, Stella will be going home in a black cab. So really, I can’t lose in this task.” Stuart Baggs, when speaking about voting for Stella as the team leader (Series 6 Episode 8)

The nature of the programme is such that it encourages anti-team behaviour as ultimately there is only one prize for one candidate. This does makes great television, but I am not sure it allows the best candidates to survive, as the winning candidate will inevitably have to work as part of a team.

In the UK especially, the term “project manager” is something we desperately cling onto. It’s a project safety net or comfort blanket. It’s the go-to guy. In scrum, there is no project manager role. Project management still occurs, but no single person is accountable for it as the duties are spread between Product Owner, ScrumMaster and Team Members. A lot of organisations can’t cope without safety blankets and try to adapt scrum to include a project manager role, or add a governance layer on top of scrum to ensure “things get done properly”.

Not only do I see this as I engage with scrum teams who are held captive within their organizational boundaries, too scared to venture beyond the perimeter fences, but I even see this in HR departments and recruitment agencies who insist on creating and filling positions in agile teams for project managers. I truly don't think there in an understanding of Scrum particularly in this area, as I still hear of recruitment drives to employ project managers who have attended a 2-day Scrum training course and now proudly wear a CSM badge on their sleeve. A ScrumMaster’s ability cannot be measured from reading a CV, and I’m trying to infiltrate those areas like recruitment, where a good understanding of scrum and agile is essential to prove that this it not the case.

Maybe then and only then, I might apply for the apprentice – but I think that type of culture shift will take a while yet. But I still live in hope that Lord Sugar will still pick the right candidate, and I can tell that he still knows the value of a good leader to a team…

When you lead a team in future life, you have got to make sure you have got everyone covered”
– Lord Sugar