The latest series of The Apprentice commenced on BBC 1 on Wednesday last (March 26, 2008) with the latest batch of candidates seeking to work for Sir Alan Sugar, founder of Amstrad.

While the programme is both entertaining and dramatic in equal measure, it also provides a wonderful insight into teams, team dynamics, and how pressure can affect performance. In the latest episode it also demonstrated some of the pitfalls of failing to plan adequately. While readers in the U.S. will be more familiar with Donald Trump’s series I feel it is nonetheless worthwhile describing a recent episode from the U.K. given the universality of the lessons.

The first episode commenced with a relatively simple task. Each team was given a van with £600 ($1,200) worth of fresh fish to sell, with the winner being the team who managed to sell the most.

The outcome was sheer pandemonium however as both teams of (apparently) very well educated participants contrived to make mistake after mistake (particularly the men’s team). These included everything from incorrectly labeling the merchandise, i.e. the seafood, to selling it at unprofitable price levels, to deciding a legal firm would be an appropriate customer for £130 ($260) worth of fresh fish. Did anyone of the team not think a restaurant might be a better target?

So what were the key lessons?

This task was, in essence, a high speed version of operating as a fish monger. However, certain elements were already dealt with, e.g. sourcing the fish, wholesale pricing, delivery, etc.

A basic tenet of any Business 101 is to ensure that the price charged to the customer contains a sufficient margin. To get this wrong (an error that was compounded by incorrectly identifying the fish) was unbelievable. I am not advocating that they should have produced a fully fledged business plan. However, a discussion planning how they intended to maximize their revenue (price x quantity) would surely have focused their minds on the importance of price in the equation. After all, selling countless numbers of lobsters at £5 when they should be closer to £15 is inexcusable.

There were extensive resources they could have called upon, ranging from online research to calling into a fish monger at the start to establish current market prices, but these were all overlooked initially. While the women’s team did break up into groups, there was ineffective delegation in the men’s team.

There was no faulting the energy and commitment, but the old adage rang through ‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail’. Had the teams identified the most important factors (margins and break-even points), delegated tasks effectively, and planned a strategy, things would have gone a lot more smoothly. Instead, we witnessed a sea of confusion which may have resulted in great entertainment but sadly exposed these apprentices as truly living up to their titles.

–Alan Gleeson
Managing Director
Palo Alto Software Ltd
Business Plan UK blog

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