If you watch The Apprentice as religiously as I do, a word association game would have you blurting out ‘You’re Fired’ in response to ‘Project Manager’ and not without justification, because the Project Manager gets fired twice as often as their team members.

The cannier contestants, with their eyes on the end game, do their best to keep their heads down.  So should we all do the same,  keep our heads down and hope the project management takes care of itself?

Well maybe not, but the great news for Project Managers is that the 6 million people who watch the Apprentice each week come to the conclusion that project management looks a bit tricky.

So what do PMs on the Apprentice keep getting wrong:

  • Planning and preparation.  The usual format is that the task starts off with an over long bun fight about just what the end product should be – cue lots of shots of Karen or Claude with looks of disbelief.  As a result, with time short, everyone then rushes off in a panic to try to get the task done.  One of these weeks a Project Manager is going to start off by asking someone in the team to plan the day while everyone else is designing the end product….but it’s into its 11th series and no-one has thought of that yet!  Time spent in planning and preparation will definitely pay dividends.
  • Sticking to the requirements. It really is hard to believe how often the Project Manager and their team ignore the key message – how often does Lord Sugar go on and on about how the task is about ‘margin’ and somehow at least one of the teams completely miss this. Being vague about requirements is a major cause of project failure in the real world.
  • People management. This really is the hardest to watch.  There’s a strong flavour of ‘I’ve decided what I want, I’m the Project Manager, so shut up and do what you’re told’ about a lot of the people management going on.  This usually involves ignoring the market research, everyone else’s opinions and common sense. Someone really ought to tell them that listening, thinking and then saying OK, I’ve heard all of that, this is what we’re doing, with a bit of ‘great idea but we have to make a quick decision and this is what we’re going with’ might work a lot better.
  • Team work. OK, I do feel sorry for someone trying to run a team where the team members are looking for every chance to get them fired, but most of the teamwork on show is the rest of the team ganging up to agree how terrible their PM is, which is usually helped along by the PM actually being terrible.  A bit of listening and empathy would go a long way.
  • Quality. The format of the program doesn’t really allow for end product testing, but they do allow the contestants to test their ideas at the design stage, with a panel/focus group. However, again it’s startling how often the results of this are ignored and the Project Manager decides to go for an untested idea instead.  Ignoring the results of testing is definitely the worst conceivable approach in the real world.

So my recommendation to anyone sufficiently deranged to take part in the Apprentice, is to find out about project management before you get there.  The teams are always asking who knows about the product they’ve been tasked to deliver, but no-one ever asks ‘who knows about project management?’ and by the looks of it that might be a better question!

Trying to manage projects without knowing the basics of project management really is a bad idea, as you can see amply demonstrated over and over again when you watch the Apprentice.  Maybe OK in the world of entertainment…..but in the real world.

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Read more advice on Project Management in Project Management for SMEs – available in print and ebook format.

Gren Gale is a consultant specialising in Project Management and Procurement and is owner of PM Results

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