Working In Uncertainty

Luck and the Apprentice: How can candidates get an edge?


The Apprentice is classic reality telly. It’s the selection process from hell and the prize is to work with a man who describes himself as Britain’s most belligerent boss. It has tasks, elimination, judging, bizarre personalities, heartbeat thumping music, embarrassment, tears, tantrums, kisses, and (eventually) a winner.

Despite the artificial situations, the selective editing of video, and the pressure cooker atmosphere there really is reality in The Apprentice. The behaviour of the candidates, Lord Sugar, and his observers, tells us a lot about why they struggle and so often go wrong, and how candidates might do better by managing their luck more skilfully.

Beneath the obvious factors that drive the results from week to week there is a subtle but powerful force at work. It is this force, and how to deal with it, that gets the spotlight in this article.

The role of luck

In ordinary language we call it luck. In this article I’ll also talk about limited knowledge and control, and the resulting uncertainty. The way people recognize and deal with their limited knowledge and control makes a huge difference to the outcome of tasks in The Apprentice, and it affects the way Lord Sugar decides who gets fired.

In this article, I'll suggest some Golden Rules for candidates to follow to maximize their luck. Alternatively, if you think you've already got what it takes, why not test yourself in some classic Apprentice scenarios.

In fact Lord Sugar’s uncertainty about who is the best candidate to work with is, in a way, the whole point of the show. The tasks and interviews are there to give him more information and help him make his choice. (They’re also designed to be entertaining!)

The candidates wrestle with uncertainty about how to behave, how other candidates will behave, and how to talk to Lord Sugar in the dreaded boardroom. More than one candidate his talked him or herself out of the competition by making mistakes there.

An incredible week 10 (2010 series)

But it is in the tasks that candidates face some of their most interesting uncertainty.

In a typical task the candidates are split into two teams and a project manager for each team is chosen. They have to think up a product of some kind and then sell it. The team that makes the most money wins and gets a treat. Someone in the losing team gets 'fired'.

Any episode would illustrate the points candidates really need to understand, but week 10 of the 2010 season on UK television will do perfectly. By this late stage there were only six candidates left so we saw a lot more of what they did on the tasks. Let’s enjoy the unfolding story and see what can be learned.

Lord Sugar divided the remaining candidates into two teams. Joanna Riley (25, cleaning company owner from Leicester) was project manager with team members Chris Bates (23, investment banker from Surrey) and Jamie Lester (28, overseas property developer from London). The other team was led by Stuart “The Brand” Baggs (21, telecom entrepreneur from the Isle of Man), and included Stella English (30, head of business management in a bank, and very much a Londoner) and Liz Locke (24, gorgeous investment banker from Birmingham).

Going into this task the front running candidate was probably the lovely Liz, whose stunning sales figures had made her background in investment banking look less important. (Lord Sugar seems to prefer people whose life story resembles his own and usually does not like teachers, lawyers, consultants, bankers, and others he sees as overeducated and useless. The statistics on who has progressed the furthest in the first 5 series agree with his stated opinions.)

Other strong contenders included Stella, whose straightforward management style seemed professional and effective, and whose lack of education perhaps offset her job in banking in Lord Sugar’s eyes, and Stuart “The Brand” Baggs whose life story sounded uncannily like a young Alan M Sugar, helping to deflect attention from the silly, and occasionally even obnoxious things he did and said.

A classic task

Their task was to sell and provide a London bus tour for a day, including a themed walking tour. The teams were given the bus, uniforms, and a driver, but had to design their own walking tour, design leaflets, sell tickets, and be tour guides.

In a typical task the candidates almost never have any directly relevant experience that will help them tell the difference between good and bad ideas. In fact, even if they did have directly relevant experience it would probably just convince them that they don’t know for sure what will work and need to test to find out. In marketing, an innocuous change to the words of a headline in an advertisement can lift sales by ten times for reasons nobody understands. Their knowledge of what will work well is very limited indeed.

In Stuart’s team the idea of a Cockney Tour was put forward by Stella (whose accent suggests she’s not far from being a Cockney herself). Stella was keen mainly because she saw a chance to do something that would make her look more fun and less ‘corporate’, something Lord Sugar had criticised previously.

In Joanna’s team the main ideas man was Jamie and, true to form, he got enthusiastic about ‘ghosts and ghouls’, with an emphasis on Sweeney Todd’s gruesome murders.

A difficult choice

Here’s something crucial you need to understand. This is the key to starting to manage your luck better: It’s human nature to think we’re better at forecasting the future than we actually are. We imagine we have more control of results than we really do. In other words, we underestimate the limitations of our knowledge and control. Consequently, we don’t do enough to learn more, to prepare to snap up opportunities, or to take precautions against setbacks.

This can be made worse – much, much worse – by the way we talk to each other.

When it came to choosing a theme for their walking tour both teams needed to understand that they had little knowledge of what would be practical to do and even less understanding of what would sell well. Starting from this understanding they could then have discussed the important things they were uncertain about and tried to get more information, or at least anticipate potential difficulties.

What they actually did, as usual, was think of themes and try to find an idea everyone was happy with. Since each team had an idea strongly supported by just one person the project managers were frustrated and worried, even though they felt unable to do anything other than accept the idea.

Stuart, talking to the camera, said that he was happy. If Stella’s idea was a failure and cost them the task then it would be her failure. What he did not understand was that the influence of the theme would be very hard to separate from all the other things that affected sales. Stuart himself, and Lord Sugar, later could not identify the effect of the theme and put the results down to other factors. So, in the end, it turned out that it was Stella who was safe from criticism, not Stuart.

This is fairly typical of The Apprentice. Although they often have to pick over events and choose what caused success or failure in the task it is very hard to be sure. It’s uncertain. There’s a limit to how much can be known. You see my point. Sometimes the marketing idea is picked on as a bad idea, but that’s often done in hindsight and influenced strongly by whether Lord Sugar likes the idea or not. In this case there was nothing to suggest that the idea was a bad one and it celebrated a part of London that Lord Sugar is closely connected with. (He was brought up in Hackney and his father worked in the East End.) So, although it is quite possible that the Cockney theme had a substantial effect on the difficulty of selling tickets, nobody criticised it.

Joanna’s reaction was even more interesting than Stuart’s and illustrates perfectly how much worse our blindness to uncertainty can be when we talk to each other in the wrong way. As she and Jamie headed off in the car to map out their tour she asked him, very intensely, if he was really sure his ghosts and ghouls idea would work. Was he really, really sure?

Remember that there was no way he could truly be sure at that stage. He had never done it before. He didn’t know what tourists to London would find attractive. How could he? It was an ill-educated guess. However, as Joanna was pressing him to show confidence in his idea he did what most people do in this situation. He pretended. Putting on his most nonchalant body language he said ‘yes’ and confirmed he was confident of his idea.

Unconvinced, Joanna then pestered Jamie with criticism and questions as they walked around trying to work out their tour.

Do you see what happened here? Joanna’s interrogation pushed Jamie into pretending to be even more overconfident of his idea than he was before. Even if, before she spoke, he had been prepared to concede some areas of uncertainty and try to find out more, he was not going to do that now. It would only undermine his air of confidence. Joanna, having pushed him into this behaviour, then panicked and tried to get him to do things that would develop the tour.

If they had started off understanding how limited their knowledge was then they could have kept an open mind and cooperated. They might have realised that finding a bunch of interesting places close together is the key, tested how long it takes to walk slowly between locations (as a mixed group probably would), and kept their eyes open for extra places of interest to show the tourists.

The unproductive pattern of behaviour between Joanna and Jamie is happening in countless organizations around the world right now. The boss demands a display of confidence and gets it, after which it’s harder to do anything practical that will make the confidence justified.

Let’s capture these points as Golden Rules of The Apprentice:

1. Never forget that you don’t know much for sure, especially about marketing.

2. Always be on the hunt for more information; always be testing.

Getting lost

Over on Stuart’s team, Stella was preparing to be a tour guide by writing notes sitting in her office. It was true that she needed to know some facts to tell the tourists. What she also needed to know was how to find her way around the tour. She relied only on map knowledge despite being bad at map reading (as she later admitted) and ended up lost with a crowd of tourists, failing to find the eel and mash shop.

In contrast, Jamie spouted nonsense but at least knew where he was and collected eight times as much in tips. According to Jamie, the Thames is only the second largest river in London and the face of Big Ben is over twenty diameters wide.

Each in their own way, both Stella and Jamie failed to spot the holes in their knowledge that would have to be fixed if they were to be good guides. Stella knew the facts but not where she was. Jamie knew where he was but made up the facts.

Another Golden Rule of The Apprentice:

3. Clarify what you don’t know that matters, and do something about it.


All this was entertaining, but the really costly mistake was being made in another car as Stuart and Liz turned their attention to pricing. Stuart proposed and immediately accepted the idea of charging £35 per adult for their tour, saying that Lord Sugar would not criticise them for asking too much. (He did of course.)

Liz, unsure, did not challenge this.

What should they have done? It’s not hard to see that checking the prices of other tours would have helped a lot and would have taken just a few minutes. What Stuart did instead was to guess and then think no more of it.

Liz could have said “But what if all the other tours are at the same price and it’s really different from ours? Let’s at least check before we commit.”

The pricing mistake hurt them almost immediately. Stuart and Liz headed into a meeting with two representatives of the London Tourist Centre to pitch a deal for the Centre to sell tickets for the tour. This was a crucial part of the task and the other team had the same opportunity. Only one team would get the deal, so this was competitive.

Asked what the price was Stuart said £35 and the Centre manager raised his eyebrows in shock. “And at the end do they get the bus to take away?” he asked, clearly signalling that the price was far too high.

Stuart, having settled the price in his own mind, seemed deaf and blind to this 10 metre red neon sign, with sirens, flashing “PRICE IS MUCH TOO HIGH. RETHINK. RETHINK.” He just carried on and so did Liz.

What would you have done? Suppose you were in the task and clear in your mind that you wanted to learn everything you could about how to market a London bus tour. On entering the Tourist Centre how about browsing the leaflets to find out what other tours are on offer and how much they cost? And in conversation with the Centre manager, how about picking his brain for any tips. You could say “Now that there’s a chance we might be doing business together, I wonder if you’ve any tips for us?” and even tried something like “I was wondering what you think of our schedule. Are these good times of day to start a tour?”

Under the circumstances this might very well have increased your credibility with the Centre and strengthened the relationship, rather than undermining it. The Centre manager already knew he was talking to someone with no idea so there was nothing to lose.

This gives us two more Golden Rules of The Apprentice:

4. When someone ignores some uncertainty, point out how important the uncertainty could be. Say “But what if…”

5. Prepare your mind for rapid responses to new information. If you know you are uncertain and think about potential opportunities to learn more, then it’s easier to do that.

The Centre’s cut

The Centre manager’s next question was what cut the Centre would get. Stuart offered 25% of the Centre’s ticket sales. The manager said they didn’t normally accept anything less than 35%. Stuart stayed with his initial offer.

Here’s yet another moment when lack of knowledge was crucial. Neither team knew what the Centre would accept or had any obvious way to find out what the going rate was. Unlike tour prices, which are advertised, this information is normally confidential. To some extent they had to trust the manager’s statements, though it might have been possible to estimate reasonable percentages from information about the cost of running a bus tour.

Lord Sugar was critical of Stuart’s offer, saying that the Centre normally took 35% and it was pointless to offer less. This seems a bit harsh because the previous week’s task had involved negotiating discounts and he had encouraged them to be as ruthless as possible, even condoning elaborate lies designed to get more money off. It was also possible that the other team might offered even less than Stuart, pushing the Centre to accept Stuart's deal even though they normally would not.

The other team also got into serious trouble during their meeting with the London Tourist Centre. Chris was sent to handle the meeting on his own and with their more reasonable prices things were going well until he was asked what he was offering the Centre.

He clearly had not thought about it, but rather than play for more information and time by asking what the centre usually did, he made up something on the spur of the moment. He offered 20% of their takings on the day. The Centre people asked him to confirm his exact wording, not quite able to believe it. He was offering them 20% of all the money the tour took on the day, not just ticket sales, not just ticket sales by the Centre, but all money from the tickets to the drinks and even the tips.

When Joanna found out later what he had offered she was horrified and visited the Centre herself, hoping that there had been some misunderstanding. Under the circumstances this was a reasonable thing to do, because it was an unusual deal and a misunderstanding was possible. Unfortunately, she was out of luck because the Centre people were very clear on the deal they had been happy to accept (i.e. money even if they did nothing), and complained that her behaviour was unprofessional, which Lord Sugar agreed with later. It was reasonable to check for misunderstanding, but when Joanna went further and begged to be let off the deal, then she went too far.

The next Golden Rule of The Apprentice is this:

6. Never pretend you know something when you don’t unless it’s absolutely essential. Instead, take the opportunity to have a conversation and learn something.

Price collapse

Having started with prices of £35 per ticket, and held to that when good quality information was provided by the London Tourist Centre, Stuart did later drop prices.

The evening before the tours, Stuart and Liz went out on the streets of London dressed in normal office clothes and approached tourists to offer them tickets for a tour the next day. Not surprisingly they sold nothing. Would you buy from someone who looks like they’ve just left their office to take some money off unsuspecting tourists by selling worthless pieces of paper? The price of £35 was only part of the problem. (The next day, dressed in bright red uniforms and standing near their bus they were much more successful.)

However, responding to the lack of sales, Stuart started saying £20 was the right price. Judging from prices advertised as I write this, £20 is not unreasonable. However, this was a case of reaching the right answer in the wrong way. The reactions of the London Tourist Centre people and the prices of competing tours were high quality information that should have influenced Stuart’s choice of price. The failure to sell tickets dressed in office clothes the day before meant little.

Most likely, Stuart was already having doubts about the £35 and failing to sell just gave him an excuse to change his mind.

The last desperate hours

At 3pm on the day of the tours Joanna’s last tour was due to set off but there wasn’t a single passenger. She was at a loss to know what to do.

At 4pm Stuart’s last tour was due to set off, and did so, packed with passengers.

It’s hard to know what made the difference but it looked as if the time of day might have been a factor. This is just one more thing that candidates could have thought of and asked about.

The result and the boardroom

On The Apprentice, as in life, winning isn’t all about making good decisions for good reasons. Chris’s ridiculous offer to the London Tourist Centre was more attractive to them than Stuart’s, and the Centre sold enough tickets to make the difference between the two teams. Even after giving away 20% of all her takings to the Centre, Joanna’s team were still the winners and went off on their treat.

That left Stuart, Stella, and Liz in the boardroom to explain themselves to Lord Sugar and battle to avoid getting fired.

Stuart himself identified pricing as the reason for losing the task. Lord Sugar then asked them each why he shouldn’t fire them. Stella stressed that she had started without much of an education and worked her way up. He seemed happy with that. Stuart promised to make him even richer than he already was. It was a ridiculous promise and Lord Sugar mocked him. But then something amazing happened. Stuart switched to his life story, saying how all his parents had given him was £10 to buy yo-yo stocks to sell in the playground. He talked about how young he was and how people often asked him how he could afford a house and a luxury car, and so on and on. Twice Lord Sugar responded that these things had been true of him.

Lord Sugar was buying it!

Last to speak was the normally persuasive Liz Locke, but she seemed stunned. She could see that Lord Sugar was swayed. Her voice croaked as she repeated how she had worked hard in every task and done well, but she seemed to know it wasn’t going to work. Liz was fired. Very few people watching agreed with that decision. Stuart should have gone. He had been ridiculous and at times obnoxious throughout the series.

It’s hard to know if there was anything Liz could have said at that point that would have saved her. But even if there had been, there was no way she would have thought of it. What happened was a total shock to her, but should it have been?

I said earlier that we think we’re better at predicting the future than we really are. Liz felt sure she was doing well thanks to her performance in the tasks. What she couldn’t know was what impression other candidates had made, and the extent to which Lord Sugar’s views would be coloured by his preference for people like him. Of the five previous series, three have been won by people who started their own business, and just one by a banker.

Last but not least, I offer you this final Golden Rule of The Apprentice:

7. Always think a bit more widely about the future than you think you need to.

Postscript: The next round was the interviews round. Stuart was fired when two examples of lying came to light and Lord Sugar began to distrust everything about him. Lord Sugar said he felt sick at having fired Liz and told Stuart he was "Full of ****." It seems there is some justice.

Made in England


Words © 2010 Matthew Leitch. First published 14 December 2010.