How some simple stats could help you win The Apprentice

We delve into data from the previous series of the BBC contest to work out when's the best - and worst - time to be project manager

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We better get this in before the pun-tastic voiceover guy does: The Apprentice is back in business! It’s been a long wait, but tonight a new batch of 16 contestants will be let loose in the boardroom, primed to pick each other apart in this brutal, but oh so entertaining, job interview from hell.

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Fortunately, you’re probably not one of those candidates about to be humbled on nation TV. But, to pass the time, let’s assume you are. Let’s say that due to an admin blunder worthy of an Apprentice candidate, you’ve been called up and suddenly found yourself in the race for Lord Sugar’s £250,000. What’s your game plan? Specifically, what’s your approach to the biggest conundrum in the competition: the project manager problem.

As you probably know, being a PM on The Apprentice is the worst. You have to control a group of ultra-competitive strong-minded individuals, all of who ultimately want to see you fired. In such a hostile working environment it’s not surprising that project managers find themselves disproportionally in the firing line. Add up all the team members in all the weeks in all the series of the show so far, and PMs make up an average of just 11.7%, – but they get fired 43.4% of the time.

Yet, if you want to win the series, you’ve got to take on the mantle at least once – previous winners have led tasks an average of 1.75 times. So, should you get it out of the way and volunteer for PM early on? On one hand, there’s a danger that Lord Sugar hasn’t had time to see your strengths yet, on the other, if things go wrong you’ve got eight other people to blame for failing.

Or, should you wait as long as you can without being pinned as a PM – that way you’ll be more accustomed to dealing with the other candidates. But since there aren’t as many people left in the competition at that point, won’t you have fewer people to scapegoat? And won’t Lord Sugar see you as somebody unsuitable to manage a new business venture?

There is a way to work out your best strategy. Although it’s often not a concept the candidates seem well versed in, what if you paid attention to the numbers? What if, say, you mined data from the past 12 series of the show (from weeks 1-10, as week 11 is normally reserved for interviews*) to unearth some helpful nuggets of truth to better your odds?

To put it simply: what tactics should you use if you’re playing extremely cynically and purely by statistics?

Well, since you asked…

Do NOT be project manager in week one

It’s become somewhat of a tradition on The Apprentice that a project manager goes in the first week – in fact, half of the candidates that have been fired in The Apprentice’s first episodes have been project managers. And that seems perfectly logical: as Lord Sugar hasn’t had time to get accustomed to the candidates and their flaws, the blame for any failing would appear to lie with the contestants in power: the PMs.

Even if you’re a master manipulator, you don’t yet know the personality of every candidate (let’s face it, you won’t even remember their names at this point) and you don’t know how they’re going to work together. You can do hardly anything to influence the situation, so it’s hugely down to luck.

So, play the odds: avoid the PM position. Seeing as half of project managers were fired in the first episode of previous years, put yourself forward in the first episode and you’ve got a 25% chance of leaving (considering there’s always two project managers and assuming you’ve got a 50/50 chance of winning).

However, you’ve only got a 3.51% chance of getting fired if you’re not the PM. Even if your team messes up, there are so many other people who could take the fall instead of you – particularly the vulnerable PM.

In other words, you’re 21.49% less likely to get fired if you’re not the project manager than if you are in the first week. In a task that is largely down to chance, that’s huge.

And you’re not missing out on any benefit if you’re PM in week one. Sure, if you win, you might immediately stand out to Lord Sugar, but it’ll be a distant memory to him if you somehow do make the final. It’s simply unlikely to spell success later on and only one winner of the show – Tim Campbell, the first Apprentice champ – PMed in the first ever task (which, fortunately, he won).

In fact, it’s such an unnecessary risk that it would probably make things easier for Lord Sugar if he instantly fired the candidates misguided enough to put themselves forward for PM in week one. It would make for a slightly short and brutal episode, but by god it would be effective.

Actually, don’t be PM in week 2 either

The newbie effect doesn’t wear off after one task: you won’t be any safer as a PM in the second week. In fact, past series have shown us you’re more likely to get fired as project manager in the second than first week – your odds of going rise from 25% to 29.2%.

And it’s not just because there are fewer people in the mix, naturally narrowing your odds of survival: you’re still more likely to get fired if the PM than the average candidate – 24.68% more, to be exact. This difference is about 3% higher than week one. That’s not a lot, granted, but it means you’ve got as much reason as in week one to let somebody else lead the team.

Yes, it may seem like you have plenty of teammates to blame for losing in the early stages, but there’s a good chance the firing finger will still be firmly locked on you.

Just don’t do it. Even if you’re tempted, just say no, kids!

Oh, and don’t be PM in week 10

Yup, this is another no go. The last task before the interview stage is the worst of all times to become a PM – take it on and you’ve instantly got a 37.5% chance of a trip in that black cab.

At first, you might think this is to be expected. After all, since there are fewer candidates in the competition at this stage (six, on average) then everyone’s chances of going must be a lot higher. But, as before, this explanation simply doesn’t hold up.

As you can see from the graph below, although the chances of non-PM candidates being fired steadily rise throughout the series**, that isn’t the case for project managers: the likelihood of Sugar firing a PM varies wildly. And Sugar has really hated PMs in week 10, disproportionately so – through the series he’s fired 28% more PMs in this week than he has normal candidates.

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For comparison, let’s look at the situation just one week before the dreaded week ten. Although there’s only one less candidate*** in the mix in week nine, the difference between the PMs and non-PMs firing risk plummets to 8.2%.

Now, we’re not saying Lord Sugar consciously likes to fire project managers simply because it’s week ten – the numbers show correlation rather than causality – but it still reveals an important lesson. If you’re PM in the last week it’s likely that you’ve taken that role feeling you’ve got still something to prove to Lord Sugar. You might have messed up as a PM earlier or simply not volunteered for the job so far. But it’s too late by this point: you should have become PM sooner.

How much sooner? Well…

Put yourself forward as project manager in week eight or nine

You might have noticed the whole PM issue is a minefield, one where it’s easy to focus on where you’ll slip up than how you might survive. But there is a safe passage. Well, safer.

So far we’ve used the difference between your risk of getting fired as a PM and as a non-PM as a way to look at this problem. So let’s slap a name on that difference: let’s call it your PM risk factor. And the lower your PM risk factor, the better your chances are of being project manager that week and not getting fired.

Got it? You’re searching for the low percentages – when it’s only marginally more risky to be a PM than not…

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So, your best odds of not getting the firing finger is in week eight, where it’s only 5% more dangerous to be PM than not. That’s not bad at all. And nor’s week nine where your PM risk factor is only 8.19%, or in week seven (11.62%).

Why are your odds of surviving so good at that point? Why is it that if you volunteer to be PM and lose in those weeks (as 66% of previous series winners did) you probably won’t get fired?

Potential answer: like many winners before you, you played it clever throughout the series. You did well in earlier tasks while not PM (when your chances of getting fired were low) and by week eight you’ve served Sugar plenty of reasons to keep you in the process.

Play the series like this and it doesn’t hugely matter whether you win or not. Previous winners of The Apprentice lost an average of 38% of tasks they managed but were still able to jump that hurdle by choosing to be PM when it’s less risky – out of the 12 previous winners, ten candidates put themselves forward in weeks seven, eight or nine. Overall, series winners were over three and a half times more likely to have been a project manager in those weeks than normal.

So do the smart thing and follow their example. In particular, play like series seven champ Tom Pellereau. The likeable inventor kept his head down during the start of the process, continually avoiding the PM role, even when the task suited his imaginative skillset. Although prompted to take the lead in tasks that involved creating a new mobile app or freemium magazine, he stayed well away from the top job. And rightly so: for the first five weeks he was on the losing side and saw four of his PMs get fired.

He soon developed a reputation as ‘Captain Hindsight’ by highlighting problems to his PM after they occurred, but at least this nickname showed Sugar he had a clear view of the business world. And that meant when Tom managed and lost a task in week eight of the competition he still didn’t get fired.

It’s the same story with series ten winner Mark Wright, a digital marketer who continuously shied away from the PM role – even during a digital marketing task. Yet he proved himself capable away from the spotlight in those early weeks, meaning that when he finally led and lost a task in week seven he was still safe.

Yes, to get that final investment you’ll need to survive the gruesome interview inquisitions and produce a decent business plan –  there’s little we can help you with there at the moment. But before that, remember that in the early stages the best thing you can do is avoid being a leader – even if that task suits your skillset. Come up with the classic “it’s not exactly my industry” line if you have to, just turn down the opportunity.

Your time for stepping into the PM role is week eight, and, if you win that one, don’t be shy about doing it the week after too. Just remember when you do become the next Apprentice champion to send us a quick thank you, or, better still, a chunk of the winnings. We’re sure Alan won’t mind.

The Apprentice is on 9pm tonight, BBC1

*There are two exceptions here. Instead of putting candidates through a gruelling interview task in week 11, series seven and eight left that challenge for the finale. Their week 11 tasks were not included in this data.

**Wondering why this isn’t a completely straight line? Lord Sugar’s double firings slightly skew the data here. And note the slight kink in week four: during series 10, Steven, Sarah and Ella Jade were all taken down in a triple firing.

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***The average, thanks to few double firings, is actually about 1.1.