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BBC Young Apprentice: Which Project Management Skills Come Naturally?

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Written by Andy Trainer– Thu 01 Nov 2012

Tonight sees the return of BBC's Young Apprentice with twelve teenagers jostling to prove they can make it in the business world in spite of their youth and inexperience.

In the past we've explained how Agile works best on the Young Apprentice and also examined why Jane McEvoy got fired. This year we ask; which project management skills come naturally, and which need to be learnt through training and experience?

As Young Apprentice often focuses on the project managing abilities of each contestant, we thought it would be worth thinking about the project management skills that the young contestants on the show are likely to have, as well as what skills it would be useful for them to build up.

1/ MBE: Manage by Example

This is an essential phrase to remember within project management but one which the apprentices, both young and old, constantly seem to forget. As the project manager, you should be a symbol of what you want the team to be.

Being honest and direct are two key aspects but perhaps the most important is to maintain a positive attitude in all situations. The best young apprentices will stay positive no matter what and will receive the same from their team when managing projects.

By their mid-teens most people adopt either a sunny or a cloudy disposition, but a positive attitude is something that, with practice, can be learnt and developed at any stage in life. Often it involves just being more assertive.

2/ Define Expectations From the Start

It is important as a project manager to make clear to your team what they are expected to do; what their specific role(s) will be, what tools they’ll have at their disposal etc.  from the start of the task. It is also necessary to consider the structure of the project in terms of ‘what goes where’ and ‘who does what and when’.

More often than not, the young apprentices consider these factors before the task but they usually struggle to remember this later. On the last series of  The Young Apprentice, team leader Haya failed to decide who should buy what on the Madame Tussauds buying task, which nearly resulted in three people buying the same thing (a suit for a waxwork Justin Bieber if you're interested!).

Contestants frequently switch roles on a whim and the project manager doesn't possess the authority to convince them to stick to their assigned jobs. It is important to combine the skill of defining expectations with other leadership skills in order to start and end a task in the way intended.

These are certainly skills that the candidates will have to continue to develop, and it's one of the key aspects taught on our Introduction to Project Management course.

3/ Be Considerate and a Good Communicator

How often do you see the contestants shouting over each other on tasks and in the boardroom? It seems to happen in every episode and yet it’s the most counter-effective practice in business and project management. There is a big difference between being assertive and just talking louder than someone else!

This video's from the main Apprentice programme but aptly demonstrates what happens when people don't know how to communicate:

If the young apprentices do better than that lot then it might show that good communication skills are a natural trait.

It is crucial that as a project manager you are considerate in your approach, taking into account varying perspectives and listening to each individual equally. Furthermore, it is pivotal to be able to communicate your own ideas and commands effectively as well.

Communication skills are often something we develop in early life but it’s never too late to try and improve either your listening skills, public speaking skills or both.

4/ Risk Management and Assertive Decision Making

Despite everything said above, ultimately the buck stops with the project manager; having the confidence to take calculated risks and make bold decisions can often be what will keep you in a job.

Some previous contestants on The Apprentice have shown themselves to be assertive decision-makers: Zara Brownless from the last series of The Young Apprentice grew into her assertiveness as the show progressed, Katie Hopkins from Series Three of The Apprentice was naturally assertive from the start.

As much as risk-taking and assertiveness can appear to be qualities that people just innately possess, but the truth is that even the most self-assured of people will have tirelessly worked at emitting a confident persona; which means that you can too!

5/ Flexibility

It may be the case that you’ll have to suddenly change an integral aspect of your project with little or no notice. The best project managers adapt to changes without blinking and accept them as a part of the job.

On a task in the last series of The Young Apprentice, the teams had to choose products to sell to the over-50s market and quickly realised that none of the products they had chosen were proving particularly popular. As such, both teams had to adapt and cut prices throughout the day. Whilst they may have made less than originally intended, at least they made something, and this was as a direct result of being flexible and responding effectively to the changing context.

Flexibility is a mind-set that can and should be taught, and it is a key component of the skill-set required to be an excellent project manager.

6/ Intuition

Linked to responding to change is the ability to respond to the moods and thoughts of your team members (as well as clients). Being able to notice a drop in team morale for example could mean the difference between being able to give them a much needed boost to spur them on and produce the right result, and finding out at the end of the project that the team wasn't happy all along.

A great example of this was the episode from the last series of The Young Apprentice in which the teams had to design a new type deodorant. As project manager, Harry M. espoused all the assertive traits outlined above, but didn't listen to his team’s concerns. As the episode progressed it became clear that his team were deliberately defying his orders. In the end they lost the task because of a poor design that came about as an act of defiance on the part of the team.

If Harry had tried to combine his assertiveness with good communication skills and intuited that his team weren't happy, they may have fared better. Unfortunately, Harry wasn't very intuitive at all and neither are a lot of people.

Intuition is a tough thing to get to grips with. People tend to be either intuitive or not.  However, there are certain signals in body language and facial expression that can be learnt, and which would make it easier for you as a project manager to gauge the morale of your team.

7/ Be a Problem Solver, a Negotiator and an Influencer

This trio of traits are perhaps some of the most vital to good project management. Your job is to be a facilitator: facilitate the completing of the project, facilitate smooth and open relationships between individual team members as well as between team members and yourself. To do this you must be able to compromise (negotiate) but also win people over to your side (influence).

The candidates on The Apprentice and Young Apprentice almost never seem to be able to agree on crucial issues. Usually the project manager will say something like ‘right, well I'm project manager and I say we’re doing it like this’ and that will be the end of it. You then end up with a low team morale because people are forced into doing things they don’t want to.

If as a project manager you can solve someone’s problem they’ll automatically respect you. If you can negotiate a deal between two warring factions, both will respect you. If you can do this and still have your own views considered to be important, everyone will respect you! The best candidates on The Apprentice and Young Apprentice over the years have always managed to combine these skills to great effect.

Will They be Any Good?

So in all, we’re expecting another mixed bag tomorrow. Some contestants won’t have a clue about how to manage a project, and others will be so good they’ll have us questioning their age. Of course they could always come on our project management training course. Ideal if you want to develop your skills as a project manager so you don't hear those two awful words: "You're fired!"

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