The Apprentice – Week Five: Lord Sugar’s Birthday

Nov 2, 2017 | #howtobeaPM, #howtowinthe apprentice, projects in plain english, the apprentice

This year Lord Sugar celebrates his seventieth birthday, so the candidates are sent on a shopping spree across London to purchase items that mark milestones in his life and career. They have one day to buy nine specific items at the best possible price and meet at the House of Lords.

An agile approach

I love this task. It’s one that crops up every season and for good reason. It highlights some key business skills like negotiating and logistics as well as two project management essentials; planning and risk management. And it requires the PMs to be truly agile in their approach. They have to think on their feet and reassess their priorities throughout the day.


   Credit: BBC

agile approach - projects in plain english

Negotiating hard for cake…

Planning and risk

Planning and risk go hand in hand. No project plan is ever set in stone and a good PM is always willing to adjust their plan as the project progresses. But every time they make an adjustment they need to consider the risks involved and the impact they might have on the project’s objectives. Risk is all about uncertainty and in this task the candidates have to deal with those two most fickle things, the great British shopkeeper and the London traffic.

Credit: BBC

agile approach - projects in plain english
The boys take a risk and leave the bricks and mortar late in the day…

Managing risk

This is a great task because the PMs have to juggle the various factors that affect the success of failure of the project. Most of these factors involve a degree of risk. They know what items they have to buy, but they don’t know what some of them are or how much they’re worth. They know that they will be penalised at least £50 for each item they don’t buy, but they don’t know what penalty will be added for the value of the item. Finally, they know that they have a deadline, 6.00 pm. If they miss this they’ll be fined £100. But is this a threat or an opportunity?

As it turns out the real deadline is 7.00 pm. After that time any items they buy don’t count. So in practice they have an extra hour which will cost them £100 whether they’re five minutes or an hour over. If they have at least two items left to buy by 6.00 pm it’s a no brainer; take the extra hour. If you get the two items you’ll more than balance out the £100 penalty. The boy’s team arrived at the House of Lords on the dot of 6.00 but were three items short.

Credit: BBC

agile approach - projects in plain english
Joanna gets it right whether by accident or design…

The result

Whether it was by accident or design the girls took the extra time,  bought all nine items and won.

This task illustrates an agile concept known as fix and flex. This is about understanding that some of the project’s objectives are fixed, for example the 7.00 pm cut off on sales. Other objectives are flexible such as the quality of the item and the amount they’re able to pay for each one. Lord Sugar wasn’t fussy about the quality of the Spur’s scarf, he just wanted something that was recognizable as one.

There were some heart-warming moments like the lady selling vintage newspapers who let the candidates have one for free as she didn’t have change for a fiver. It shows how generous people can be if you treat them the right way and that’s a lesson that every Apprentice candidate could learn.



Hopefully Lord Sugar had a birthday back up plan. What did you think of week five?

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