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Does 'The Apprentice' damage the public perception of project management as a profession?


‘The Apprentice’ has raised the profile of project management and created a point of discussion. People who have never heard of, or never understood project management, can see what is involved and why a project manager’s role is hard.

But is all publicity good publicity? When the contestants make such a poor job of being project managers, won’t ‘The Apprentice’ just make people think project managers are a waste of time?

Are the contestants really project managers?

At first glance, the project managers on ‘The Apprentice’ appear to be team leaders, doing no more than a practical leadership task familiar to those who have been on management leadership courses. In later series, Sir Alan Sugar actually calls them team leaders, but interestingly the contestants continue to use the term project manager.

However, the tasks set by Sir Alan do meet the definition of a project, as they are:

  • temporary
  • have defined success criteria
  • complex (ish)
  • unique
  • deliver a benefit

And the losing teams’ sessions in The Bridge Cafe certainly constitute post project evaluation!

But are they doing project management?

If the essence of project management is planning, direction and control, the contestants generally do a poor job. The project managers do not listen to their colleagues or to the expert advisers and do not pay attention to building their teams. Although this may be going on but is edited out, to make the programme more entertaining!

In their defence, the contestants have very little in the way of project management skills and experience. They have been selected to make the show interesting and are in a competition to win.

However, to find people doing project management without the necessary skills is not unique to ‘The Apprentice’. Many people in the UK workforce are in a project management role in name only, lacking experience, skills and sources of advice. So the position they are in is not uncommon in the real world.

But the approach they take wouldn’t happen in the real world, would it? At first glance, this seems unlikely. However, the Major Projects Authority has found cases where political pressure resulted in the major projects starting without proper planning, so perhaps the programme is not completely unrepresentative of project  management in action.

Would project management techniques make a difference to the outcome of the tasks? 

Would APM members make a better job of the project manager role? It would be good to have a pro celebrity programme for charity and see if professional project managers could do a better job than amateurs! Or APM could sponsor a show that invites contenders with actual project management ambitions to complete in a similar format to ‘The Apprentice’?

APM members’ top tips for The Apprentice project managers

There is no doubt that contestants on ‘The Apprentice’ would benefit from using the project management skills and techniques promoted by the APM. Just about every aspect of The Body of Knowledge would be relevant to the show.

Here are a few top tips that would make a difference to the success of the projects:

  1. Listen, listen, and listen to the brief, to your colleagues, to the experts.
  2. Plan the work at the start.
  3. Prepare a programme.
  4. Develop a work breakdown structure.
  5. Clarify roles and responsibilities.
  6. Make sure the team understand and share the project objectives.
  7. Facilitate discussion, bring out everyone’s ideas and develop a consensus.
  8. Manage your stakeholders.
  9. Develop contingency plans driven by an understanding of risk.
  10. Be proactive: if you aren’t going to meet a deadline, let the customer know in advance and try to mitigate the impact.

Real team working 

The contestants’ objective is to get hired (or in the later series, go into partnership with Sir Alan). This conflicts with the objective to succeed at each task, as each contestant wants to present themselves in the best light and make sure the blame for failures falls on others.

In the last task of each series, previously fired contestants come back to help the finalists. Here, the egos are gone and the team members are there to support the project mangers complete the task.

There is much better communication and people are happy in their team role.

Is Sir Alan Sugar a good project sponsor?

Is it fair to blame team failures on the project manager? Isn’t the project sponsor responsible for achieving project success?

Sir Alan is good at identifying the business need but he doesn’t follow any of the other APM guidance for the project sponsor role. He doesn’t remain visible, review the projects as they proceed and doesn’t commit much time.

However, if he did these things, the projects would all succeed but the television series would fail! Arguably for Sir Alan, the project is to increase visibility of the AMS brand and to increase viewing figures.

On these criteria, Sir Alan is fulfilling the sponsor role admirably as these objectives are being achieved! And the programme has certainly caught the attention of the project management profession, given the number of posts on the subject on the APM discussion forum!

Can we learn about project management from the show?

Some people have used ‘The Apprentice’ as research for project management dissertations or for CPD, as the programme shows many ‘how not to’s’ of project management. However, its learning potential is limited, as evidenced by the RPP candidate who only claimed one hour’s CPD for watching a whole series of the programme.

The follow-up programme ‘The Apprentice – You’re Fired’ gives an opportunity for a discussion about each task and what could have been done better.

‘The Apprentice’ is not the only television programme where project managers have problems! Grand Designs and the Sarah Beeny-type renovator programmes are full of examples of scope creep and poor cost management.

What is the APM’s role in promoting the profession?

Project manager is a very wide-ranging term. A major part of the APM’s role is to promote project management as a profession. The Registered Project Professional qualification will help to do this.

The media is quick to report on project failures. It would be good for the APM to field people to contribute to the television discussions on project management, including discussions about ‘The Apprentice’. 

A key part of APM’s role is to promote project management education. It is important that anyone with project management responsibilities has the knowledge and expertise they need for this role. The higher level apprentices are a good example of an initiative to improve project management education (and a wonderful response to the project management failings shown on the programme).

The status of project managers

The programme raised an interesting issue of whether the term ‘project manager’ implied a higher status than ‘team leader’. For some people a team leader has higher status than a project manager.

But if project management is a profession in the same way that law and medicine are, then a project manager can occupy a variety of positions in a company or within a team. A project manager could be at any level within their organisation from board director to simply a project manager.

A project manager might be a team leader if they were responsible for a group of professionals. Conversely, a team leader might be the person leading a group of technical staff, so would be a long way down the project organisational chart.

The conclusion is that it is not the name project manager that defines seniority but the person’s role within a project.

Good publicity for the profession? Yes! 

‘The Apprentice’ has put project management into the public domain. On balance, this is a good thing, as the programme is seen by millions each week and provides an opportunity for discussion.

Web briefings

Web briefings are the developed from the APM Community, an online community of project professionals. They result from discussions and questions asked within the community, the content is developed from users’ responses and edited by APM.

Web briefings are constantly evolving within the online community and are intended as a guide to issues within the profession.

See all APM web briefings.

Written with contributions from Barnaby Davies, Paul Every, Jon Hyde, Keith J, Andy Jordan, Julie Legge, Jason R Lee, Carol Long, Paul Naybour, Andy Nichols, Lee Nicholson, Mike R, Romano, Iain Benjamin Simpson, Philip Smelt, Helen Timperley, The Lazy Project Manager, Edward Wallington, Matt Whyndham, Owain Wilson.