The Apprentice Antipattern

Seven steps setting up teams for unsuccess

Picture: In a notebook a very rough drawing of a logo, it reads ‘Artic Saviour’ — yes this is how it’s spelled.

It’s very easy to hate on The Apprentice. I was recently at the hairdresser and she started asking me what I’d been watching recently and brought up the show. Even though she always watched it, her main complaint was that she thought the people were stupid; arrogant, and utterly disconnected from the reality of their own skills and abilities. I see why people would think this but it is profoundly untrue.

The biggest myth about The Apprentice is that failure to deliver is as a result of individuals and interpersonal relationships rather than considering the organisational barriers and constraints, and the cognitive biases and disincentives they create.

These people are not stupid they are actively prevented from achieving success through a number of serious structural barriers (that, admittedly, make very popular TV).

So here it is, my ‘Apprentice antipattern’, or rather, how The Apprentice sets up teams for unsuccess:

1. Teams are formed arbitrarily

In the first episode teams are defined not based on skills needed for a task, or even on a balance of skillsand experience. They are defined based on… gender? How arbitrary can you get? Gender has absolutely nothing to do with the skills required to complete or be successful at a task, it just makes it easier for bosses to organise and categorise people.

(Please don’t even get me started on how using gender in this way erases other’s preferred pronouns, and I’ll come on to the fact that they call these teams “girls” and “boys” later.)

Gif: The ‘girls’ team in the boardroom, some laugh, others look shocked and confused.

As the series goes on they arbitrarily move people between teams purely to balance the numbers — because that’s ‘fair’ — again, it has nothing to do with how the teams might deliver a great result and is all about how the bosses monitor them, which brings us to…

Gif: Karen Brady (one of the bosses on the UK version of The Apprentice) stands by a hedge, the wind blows in her hair and she looks concerned.

2. Teams are monitored

Teams are shadowed by a boss who spots issues but doesn’t speak up about them. This boss does not offer direction, let alone advice, support or training for their team. The boss’ role is purely to feed back to leadership on the problems and issues the team faced, without taking responsibility.

Gif: Karen Brady is shown in a kitchen, she holds her notebook, looks at her watch, and then puts her hand on her hip.

This creates a culture of being watched, leading team members who are more uncertain to second-guess themselves and either disclose their lack of confidence to management (concerning), or act with bravado (which is later categorised by management as arrogance).

Second-guessing leads to lack of clarity of decisions, delays, and mismatched strategy, while bravado leads teams into making rash decisions based on limited viewpoints and snap judgements. Which also leads to…

3. Teams don’t have the right set of skills…

I don’t mean that the people are stupid — they’re not — but their experience and backgrounds are very similar: sales, business, finance. The teams lack enough diversity of skills and experience to create effective check and challenge.

This means they often fall into consensus based on their own experiences and be unable to identify the needs of the people they are creating for (or the markets they hope to capture) and are unable to spot issues that may arise.

Gif: Karen Brady stands in a garden, she is wearing sunglasses. She looks down to write something on her pad, shakes her head a little. she raises and eyebrow which appears above her sunglasses.

Some team members become consensus-focussed. Agreeing with everything and never showing their own opinions or using their expertise — these people become almost invisible in their conformity. They are often able to quietly coast though several episodes and rapidly cede responsibility when called upon to be a ‘project manager’. If they are called into the board room they may be tagged as lazy, sneaky (for ‘hiding’) or lacking substance.

On the other hand, when risks and issues (or even, god forbid, opinions!) are made by members of the team they are likely to be shouted down by the consensus seekers, or tagged as difficult or disruptive so that they can be ignored — these characteristics are also useful to reference in the board room.

When teams are eventually allowed to do market research, they are invariably surprised by it and will cherry pick responses which most suit their worldview hoping that they won’t be exposed later. Except, well, see Point 2.

Gif: Karen Brady laughs.

4. Teams only consider resourcing for tasks that appear novel

Because teams have very similar skills and experience they seem to stop viewing the planning and resourcing of tasks related to those skills as being important. By focussing only on the resourcing of novel activities they loose sight of why it might be important to consider the right person for a task that is more understood and understandable.

As a result decisions on who will undertake these tasks left until the last minute and as such are allocated mostly based on personal ambition or interpersonal relationships, not on who would achieve the best result, who has capacity, or even any other arbitrary prioritisation.

This partly explains why those teams turn up and give a terrible sales pitch, or fluff a meeting or negotiation, but there is also another reason.

5. Leadership value some tasks and activities over others based on their own experiences

The big boss has experience in some activities over and above others, for example selling, pitching, and negotiating. Because of this knowledge these tasks are more visible (when they go wrong) and more highly valued (when they go right).

This leads teams to compete for certain tasks over others, and for project managers to delay decision making over who will do these activities so that they don’t risk upsetting the team. This lack of planning leads to the same outcome as number 4.

Gif: Two of the ‘boys’ team stare blinking, and with their mouths agape.

6. Teams are prevented from drawing on the skills and expertise of others…

Teams very rarely seek input from others, it is assumed that the team have all the resources that they need to be successful.

Where they do get to work with other skills this is limited to directing; the person designing the logo (packaging/advert/computer game) doesn’t provide any feedback or challenge, they just dish out what has been asked of them.

I always feel very sorry for these people who you just know are up all night working on a shoddy piece of work to deliver it to the teams for the next day, just so that their own organisations can get something from being featured on the TV.

Gif: A game developer in a Metal Gear Solid T-Shirt, looks confused and quite depressed —I wonder how he feels having developed Sam the Scientist

7. Teams communicate only when it’s too late

Occasionally project teams split in two to undertake worksteams concurrently. Generally a ‘sub-team’ (and there’s a language issue here too) will have been sent off with a brief, which the project manager expects them to deliver. That sub-team will come up against constraints and need amend their approach, however they aren’t able to discuss it with the rest of the team until the decisions have already been made.

Invariably, the decisions that make one work strand better, lead to the failure of aspects of the other part (e.g the product no longer represents the branding) — and a very unhappy project manager.

This sometimes happens the other way round too, the sub-team are really successful at something they were asked to do (e.g catching crabs) but the main team change their approach (or mess something up) without communicating it, which means a large part of the sub-team’s work is wasted.

If only the main team and sub team were able to keep in close contact and discuss decisions or constraints with one another as they arise, eh?

These are my initial thoughts and I’m sure others have many more about what might be included here — please feel free to message me and let me know!

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