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What The Young Apprentice Can Learn From Agile Project Management

Written by Andy Trainer – Wed 16 Nov 2011


We are currently four weeks in to the second series of the BBC's Young Apprentice, a spin off of the highly popular The Apprentice. Throughout the 7 series of The Apprentice there has been a lot of discussion within the project management community over whether or not the weekly tasks are 'projects' and whether or not the contestants have the right to call themselves 'project managers'. There is a concern that using project management terminology is bringing project management into disrepute, as week in week out the contestants either make huge mistakes or get through by the skin of their teeth. All this leads to the general public thinking 'well I could do that better.'

Young Apprentice Project Managers

Are the Young Apprentices Project Managers?

Lord Sugar BBC Young Apprentice

The 'Are they? Aren't they?' discussion is even more prominent in the context of Young Apprentice. The candidates are all 16 and 17 yet still refer to themselves as project managers on the tasks. It is worth noting that Lord Sugar only refers to them as 'team leaders' but does their belief that they are managing projects bring project management into disrepute? I think not, if anything it shows how hard project management can be as the candidates rarely succeed, and it is often a case of who lost the least rather than who won.

So if the 2-3 day tasks are 'projects' and the team leaders are 'project managers' then what can the Young Apprentices do to become better project managers? Well, firstly they need to work within a framework. The Apprentices and Young Apprentices often claim; 'I have business acumen', 'I was born to do this' and 'I think on my feet', but in the real world, projects need structure to succeed and the best project managers have combined natural skill with training and knowledge gained from experience.

Different projects require different approaches depending on circumstances including time, resources, flexibility, stakeholder expectations and many more.

Best Project Management Approach for the Young Apprentice

Agile Project Management is the best approach for Young Apprentice projects. They are short (2-3 days), are highly subject to change (candidates only find out about the task on the first day and as they have no training or experience are learning along the way) and require a high success rate fast (3 days to beat the competition and secure your place next week).

If you're wondering what Agile Project Management is then read the basic Agile principles.

Applying Agile Project Management to the Young Apprentice

agile project management

To best show how Agile would suit the candidates, I've applied the Four Agile Manifesto Values to the Young Apprentice:

Individuals & Interactions over processes and tools

As the Young Apprentice hopefuls are so young, it is unlikely they know many processes and tools. Rather than sticking to rigid tools they should use the individual skills of the group - they each have specialities from design and creativity to pitching and figures. Identifying the strengths in their team will allow them to allocate project resources effectively for the best result. This often hasn't happened and has lead to some terrible ideas and cringe worthy pitches. In part this is Lord Sugar's fault as he pushes candidates to have a go at everything.

Working Software over comprehensive documentation

Young Apprentice You're Fired

As the original values were written with a view to software development, this one is very software specific. However, it can be applied to project management too. The idea behind it is that a client prefers working software to a 100-page document telling them how the software works. Applying this to the Young Apprentice - spend more time on completing a successful project than trying to protect yourself in the boardroom. You often see contestants trying to sneak through each week by doing nothing on tasks and then attempting to save themselves by coming up with huge boasts in the boardroom about how much they've contributed or what ideas were ignored by the team. Usually, Lord Sugar sees through this and fires them early on.

While risks can get candidates fired, having complete documentation of everything that happened and why it happened and still losing a task shows that the original plan was poorly thought out and does not reflect well on the project manager.

Customer collaboration over contract negotiation

You have to work closely with customers, especially in the short time that Apprentice candidates have. The winners of the tasks are those who cut prices to reflect consumer demand and have a rapport with their customers. The ones that lose usually stick to rigid prices and have poor selling techniques. The standard formula for an Apprentice task is sell a lot of something in a short period of time - that requires close speculation of what customers want and the ability to bend on pre-arranged conditions.

Responding to Change over following a plan

A 3 day task, which the project team only finds out about on the first day and usually has little or no experience in, requires flexibility. There is no way that a plan can be decided, implemented and stuck to based on the first project meeting. Using this week as an example - plans had to change as the teams decided on products, adapted to which products they were left with (one team missed out on their preferred product) and bend to consumer demand to sell as much as possible - updating pricing and strategy throughout the day.

The tasks need structure but it must be a loose structure that is subject to change.

Summary

I see nothing wrong with use of project management terminology on Young Apprentice but I do believe the contestants themselves should have a look into project management techniques so that they can back up their claims with knowledge and apply that knowledge to succeed in their tasks. In particular they should look at Agile Project Management as the best approach to their project demands. Of course, I realise that the episodes are filmed in advance but it is still good advice for future Apprentice and Young Apprentice candidates - before you call yourself a project manager, learn something about project management and keep the PM community happy!

If you are looking for a methodology that is flexible, responds well to change and is perfect for small, quick projects then Agile Project Management Training is perfect to you. More and more organisations are beginning to think the Agile way as they find that some business approaches do not cope well with change. Agile can be used on its own or even alongside another framework such as PRINCE2 for the successful completion of projects. Become an Agile Project Management Practitioner and show that you're flexible.

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