How To Win Apprentice 2

Like many others in this country, I was pleasently surprised by the quality of The Apprentice, the show on NBC that if I have to explain, you will not want to read the rest of this post.

Considered as a game, Apprentice is almost identical to Survivor, with one major difference: The selection criterion for elimination. In Survivor, it is the majority vote of the rest of your tribe. In Apprentice, it is the selection of Donald Trump. Trump is a billionaire who has been to the brink and back, and whether I'd like him as a person or not, I do respect the results he has in the business arena.

I was fascinated by the different dynamics this alternate selection criterion created. Survivor creates a "back-stab and be back-stabbed" environment, Machiavellian to the extreme, where you never quite know what's going on. Apprentice had strong incentives to stick together with your team, no matter what, in an effort to be the team that does better and be safe for another period. Thus, it combines many of the interesting parts of Survivor without the constant and sometimes tiring complicated political games.

As a game, I'd say Survivor is more challenging, mostly because you are never not playing Survivor, from the second you see your fellow survivors to the moment the final vote is tallied. In Apprentice, the winners could relax and enjoy their rewards, and in the periods between challenges, there was no real need for the teams to be antagonistic. Of course, the ultimate result is the same, 15 of 16 eliminated, so in that sense they are equally difficult to win.

I'll never know if I'm just arm-chair quarterbacking, but I feel I could have done a decent job in Apprentice, though I don't know if I have the drive. There are certainly some mistakes I saw the contestants make that I would have avoided, though I'm sure I would have made some of my own!

Probably my greatest triumph while watching the show, and the one that greatly surprised my wife last night, was calling the final results of the finale immediately after the show last week (i.e., with about an hour and a half to go before the final boardroom). I correctly said Kwame would end up losing, because of his failure to fire Omarosa after she was caught in a flat-out lie. As he said, he didn't know he could fire her, which I also didn't know, but I said that even if he couldn't "fire" her, he could still strip her of all responsibility and authority, and tell her to go be somewhere else for the duration, effectively firing her even if she wasn't legally "fired". (I don't know what arrangements were made for the six "employees", but they did off-handedly mention they were unpaid last night.)

(Parenthetical: Omarosa's motivation boggles my perhaps excessively-rational mind. Here she is, in a job that is guarenteed to end in two days, with no advancement possibility, she's not even getting paid; a job with no past, no present, and no future. She gets in trouble, and what does she proceed to do but lie about a phone call to cover her responsibility. There is no potential upside to that action. There is no way it will not be found out. The only explanation is that she is a reflexive liar to cover herself. Kwame should have fired her not just on the grounds that she lied, and not just on the grounds that the lie cost him a lot, but also on the grounds that there was no rational basis, even a purely selfish one, to lie! To lie in such a situation does not speak well for her political savvy; potential employers of Omarosa the Political Consultant take note.... and on that note, can anybody point to anything Omarosa actually did, instead of trying to shift it onto someone else? Seriously, go back and watch her... she never does anything but re-assign responsibility away from herself. This, I suppose, bodes well for her Political Consulting career.)

That said, in the interests of analysing the game, and potentially helping any Apprentice 2 contestant bright enough to Google for "How to win Apprentice 2", I offer the following strategies for winning. Ultimately, since it comes down to whether Trump likes you or not, there isn't a perfect winning strategy any more then there is in Survivor. But there's a lot of mistake you can avoid making in the second series:

  • Listen to Trump. Find a copy of the Apprentice 1 tapes, and write down everything Trump says that is related to business, particularly the parts where he talks about the relationship he likes with his employees, e.g. "I don't like excuses." Take them to heart, and never deviate from them. For example, even if you're caught in abject failure in a team situation, say something to the effect of "We did a good job, and the other team did even better." No excuses, no here's why you failed, no here's why it wasn't fair, even if you're thinking those things. (You may, in answer to the direct question, "Why did you fail?", say something penetrating and insightful that shows you've learned from your failure, but do not volunteer these reasons otherwise.) Even if he tries to trick you into admitting weakness, don't. It's a trap.
  • Related to that example, you are always the best. If asked, you are God's Gift to humanity in the business world, requiring only a shred of opportunity to shine and make it big. Even if you just failed. Trump doesn't like to hear that you may not have been perfect, even if it's true. Let him do the criticizing, and always defend yourself. (Be conservative about volunteering this, though; Sam sounded like he swallowed a few too many "Assertive Management" books. Limit it to "I'm your (wo)man", and wait to toot your horn until you can work it into the answer to another question.)
  • Speak frankly. As you might expect from a billionaire, he has a finely tuned bull-shit detector. Always tell the truth, and don't try to hide behind words or craft those fancy phrases that mean nothing: "I really feel that we did well, but there are some things that we could have done better, and in the end we didn't quite meet our full potential." Meaningless. In the event that this rule conflicts with the previous points... well, you're probably about to be fired... stick with the truth. This is the Primary Rule, because...
  • Assume the cameras are Trump. I have no idea how much of the footage Trump watches from each show, but he obviously has a good idea what's going on, even though he wasn't there, so he must watch at least some. If there's a camera, assume that's Trump right there. Even when you're in the "alone" sessions talking to the camera, assume Trump will watch that segment and speak accordingly. Unless they guarentee Trump doesn't watch those, you're not speaking to America, you're speaking to Trump, and the television producers happen to broadcast some of that to the rest of us.
  • Personal relationships are much less important in Apprentice then Survivor. They are not quite "zero", since a complete sociopath would not be able to work in a team, but if you have a choice between saving a relationship or doing something better, take the better. Even if you like someone, if another team-mate can do a better job, give the job to the other. There is very little anyone can do to "get back" at you; the more obviously they sabotage the team effort, the more certain they make it that they will get fired.
  • The goal is not to win the early challenges, but to not be a loser. Ultimately, since the teams get changed up to maintain a balance, unlike Survivor where imbalances can be maintained for weeks of game-time, you gain little long-term advantage by winning. Eventually, you will lose. In every boardroom where there were three people, I couldn't necessarily predict who was going to get fired, but there was one person I could predict wasn't going to be fired. The optimal strategy is to be that person. In real terms, it is much more important to be competent and effective then to have your team win.
  • Results are everything. For better or for worse, Trump and his advisors subscribe to the philosophy that results are everything. Have results to show, even if your team lost. Maybe you got the best advertising sponsership of anybody in the game, even if your team lost.

That's my advice for the game as a whole. Advice for the specific challenges:

  • Maximize profit challenges: IIRC there were at least two of these, plus the auction. In any business, there will generally be an unequal distribution of profit centers in the company. In the real world, a company will often need the lower-profit portions of the company for other reasons: Market positioning, flexibity, future growth. None of these reasons apply to you. Seek out the largest profit area and work on making that bigger. A 20% increase on 50% of the profit is bigger then a 100% increase on 5% of the profit.Canonical Example: The women in the restaurant challenge, who maximized the alcohol profits while the men concentrated excessively on merchandising. Planet Hollywood, based on the numbers given in the show, is using its gift shop as marketing and branding, not a profit center... at least as compared to the booze.
  • Sell X: "Believe in what you're going to sell." Canonical example: The art challenge. I probably could have done better with that "wierd" art because I didn't hate it as much as the contestants obviously did, though it's still not something I'd hang on my wall. (For what it's worth, I agreed with the monetary analysis the losers did and I was also wrong on that episode. Learn from that.)
  • Longshots: I don't think Sam's lemonade strategy was flawed, trying to sell a cup for a thousand dollars. If it worked, everybody would have loved him. His only failing was shooting too high; I bet he could have found a $100 payoff, maybe even more then one. Instead, he got nothing and that started him off on the wrong foot. They may still be worth a try, especially early in the game when you have 7 or 8 members. Allocating one to a long shot could pay off, and in the meantime it is unlikely that you will really miss their contribution. (And if they fail, you have a scapegoat, especially if they go off and do their thing without asking, so you were never in a position where you "approved" it ;-) )
  • Who is the customer? I get this from what I consider the single most flawed challenge Apprentice ran, the airplane advertising challenge. Each team was tasked with producing an advertisement for a high-class air service, with the women coming up with something really risqué, and the men with something servicable, but conservative. Ultimately, I can't know this, but I would lay money the airline would have chosen the men's ad. Unfortunately for the men, the airline company was not the customer. The challenge was judged by the advertising executive of the firm they were using as resources. Obviously, he's going to choose the daring and borderline-obscene one, because he's looking at the advertisement qua advertisement, whereas the airline would have looked at it from a branding point of view. The women had the superior "advertisement", even though the men had the superior product. Take a cue from software engineering: Always know the customer, and the customer is the person who will decide who won. If it's a straight money challenge, then the customer is the traditional customer, the one giving you money. But if the challenged is judged in some other manner, the "customer" is the judge.The challenge, as I mentioned, was seriously flawed, and would have been easily fixed by having the actual airline choose the ad, rather then the ad consultants. (Perhaps this was the plan but they backed out.)(The fact that the airline company was not the true customer is particularly ironic in light of the fact that the project manager got fired on the grounds he decided to never interview the "customer", which apparently even Trump believed was the airline company.)
  • On the topic of advertising, keep advertising as a revenue source in mind. At least one challenge was won on the strength of advertising alone, the rickshaw challenge. Probably nothing else can compete with it as an impromptu source; remember we're talking potential national advertising, charge and pitch accordingly. You can't take too much advantage of the ubiquitous cameras, but this is one place where they can seriously pay off without it being "obvious" that you did.
  • Always have people do what they are best at, and don't worry about "fair" duty assignment. Several challenges were lost by having people do the wrong jobs. If you're a real estate negotiator, don't farm that job out even if you're in charge. Don't be afraid to swap mid-negotiation, either; the damage that will cause is less then the damage of leaving the wrong person in. Swapping a few people, under normal circumstances, should be a positive for you in the boardroom, showing flexibility, especially in the first few challenges where you can't know what people are good at until you see them in action. The idea that you would get all assignments right on the first crack is laughable; optimize your team.

There was one extremely significant ambiguity in the show; Trump and his advisors seemed to want everyone to demonstrate leadership, but leaders need followers. It remains unclear to me whether you are supposed to consider the Project Manager your boss, or if you could score major points by forming your own schism in the team and being the de facto Project Manager of the schism. I don't know if this would be considered assertive or disloyal; I saw evidence in both directions. I for one would want to ask Trump what exactly he wanted from his non-project manager, loyalty (giving feedback but ultimately following orders even if you don't think they are the "best" actions) or "leadership" (potentially disregarding the project manager).

I guess I'll see how this holds up in the next one; I should develop a checklist for scoring Apprentices. I hope the second one is as interesting as the first. If you're a contestant and you find this and think it was useful, drop me a line, I'll get a real kick out of it.