evaluation


So here we are at The Final. Even if I’m not entirely about the numbers (as my MBTI and other psychometric experiences confirmed), I can calculate on the spot pretty well for someone whose background and strengths are mostly on the creative side of the fence. So if time really is money, I  reckon this series has cost me about a grand at my going rate. Ok, it’s had its moments, but any sense of a meaningful return has been a little difficult to identify.

Nor am I entirely proud that I’ve reviewed the episodes as if I’ve been watching televised pantomime, but that is what much of the series has felt like: the reviews are at least honest. And few reviewers – except one or two written by people taking themselves rather too seriously (or trying too hard to sell their own services) – have treated the programme with much more respect. There has been wisdom on offer, but all too often it’s been Norman Wisdom rather than Business Wisdom. No disrespect to Nick Hewer, Karren Brady or Lord Sugar himself: I’m sure your intentions are entirely honourable and your hearts are in the right places. But a lot of the audience are laughing up their sleeves rather than taking notes. There also seems to be a consensus that this hasn’t been a bumper series: the candidates have neither shone with brilliance nor dazzled with ineptitude, and the format feels tired. (If you can’t be clever, be likeable and all that …)

Indeed, the format is now an ugly cut and shunt job. The title never really belonged: whatever the programme has ever been, a structured learning programme with constant mentoring isn’t it. The task format worked while it was about picking an employee, but has not been amended now that it’s about identifying a partner to invest in. As The Telegraph pointed out, this year and last year’s eventual winners were both the candidate in the final who had been on the losing team the most often. (Although this criticism also overlooks the factor that annoys me: the worst or weakest performance can easily be on the winning team, while someone else must be fired.) The selection process may introduce a ‘reality tv’ level of suspense into the series, but as a model of business selection criteria it needs a stern word in its ear. (Claude, do you have a moment?) As models for assessment centres go, It’s A Knockout is an unusual choice.

Interestingly, the ‘The Final Five’ and the ‘Why I Fired Them’ programmes gave the viewer rather more beyond slapstick and buffoonery than the actual episodes: they had moments of a sober reflective quality that reviewed business strengths and personal qualities in ways that the tasks themselves have not. And as Lord Sugar reminded us in them, the process is also about the person: as well as an investor, Lord Sugar will be a business partner with the eventual winner. Good luck with that, as they say. And are you sure you didn’t want that dog?

Anyway, here we all are at the Institute of Directors, and each finalist gets a couple of sentences to outline their business plan. Nick offers a one-click facility for any recipe on the internet so we can buy the ingredients in one fell swoop. Tom is punting a hedge fund based around investments in fine wines. Jade is offering a call centre the size of Wales. Or perhaps Nepal. And Ricky is proposing an ethical recruitment service aimed at the scientific industries.

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We’ve introduced you to the runners and riders for this penultimate hurdles challenge of the season, and let you review their form in the paddock. So let’s get the cameras rolling and take you to West London for the Burlington Arcade Handicap Chase. And who better to set the scene than contemporary business’ very own Burlington Bertie from Bow? Lord Sugar, for it is he, sets up the challenge to create affordable luxury items. Roll up, roll up, get yer entrepreneurs ‘ere, ladies and gentlemen. (One of the candidates makes a remark about the final heat being the one to sort the men from the boys. I’d man up if I were you, Jade. Or cuff someone.)

The trick of the task is presumably in the non-sequitor. Charged with creating the product, the branding, a retail environment and an industry experts pitch, market positioning and retail strategy will be critically important here. Not so much as little nuggets of poshness for poorer people, but more as the kind of pampering items that still sell even in hard times. (The BBC has presumably slipped up somewhere on the socio-economic inequality indicators, but we’ll let it pass.)

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Last week’s episode engineered a cliff hanger, which saw Stephen escape Lord Sugar’s laser-guided firing finger by millimetres. This week, he’s parlayed his way into being PM whatever the task, and winning. Assessed on past performance, he’s left himself no option but to polish his petard until it’s as blindingly shiny as his suits and pray that he’s not hoisted aloft on it like a white flag. If there’s any justice, he’ll address a few other points too: dealing with his five o’clock shadow (fine at 5pm, but all day?), curb his patronising approach to the others (and especially the female others – let’s hope Karren is taking notes), and start taking responsibility rather than directing to others the moment anything as much as threatens to turn nipples-skyward. Last week, he had what we can assume was his first real close shave, and was only spared a free cab home by the thickness of his faux mohair waistcoat.

This week, regardless of the task, it’s his own brand that sorely needs a 24-hour makeover and a drastic repositioning. So it’s very tense on my sofa this week. Not only I am missing Lewis for this, I now realise I’m also missing the final series of A Town Called Eureka. Dramatic tension, complex problems to unravel, radical innovation, rendering of justice – and all of it on other channels.

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Last Friday’s Independent ran an article with a headline that raised both my hackles and my eyebrows. I speak – and react – as both a foodie and very much a ‘non-Econ’, as anyone who saw my reaction to Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge may remember. The article’s title? Eat like an economist, dine like a king. Despite having a day off at the time – when you’d imagine I’d respond like a foodie – I responded like a non-Econ. Three assumptions were immediately triggered:

  • They’re talking about dining on expenses, right?
  • Do they mean ‘dine alone’, but they’re too embarrassed to say so?
  • Do they want me to recall that bit in Nudge about a drinks party organised on strict economic principles? Because I don’t …

In the event, the article was really nothing of the sort. It was plugging a book – Tyler Cowen’s An Economist Gets Lunch – that the journalist had chosen to present as applying “an economist’s cold logic to the world of food”. Mr Cowen may be a professor of the dismal science, but he also writes a foodie blog, and reading around the reviews – no, I’ve not bothered with the book – I get the feeling the foodie in him generated the desire for a book that the economist in him has found a way to pitch.

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OK, I missed Episode 1. No, I didn’t nod off: I was Down Under, 12 hours out of sync, and eating breakfast in a campervan. Whether muesli, banana and sunshine were better for me than another episode of this must remain a debate to be had elsewhere, but I didn’t have a sense of missing it. Having concluded, watching the last series, that the programme struggles to really be either a business lesson or an entertainment (we’ll return to that in a moment), watching Episode 2 in the throes of jetlag wasn’t a great idea. While the running metaphor of review the last series was Steve, sat on a sofa in Rotherham, the show’s ‘magic’ didn’t rub off on Dave, sat on a sofa in Milton Keynes. I drifted, more in the sense of Mae West’s oft-quoted remark than in the sense of any kind of reverie. And I wasn’t Snow White before I started, even without the capital letters.

It was the week of The Invention Task. “Aren’t they all?”, I mused woozily, in as much as every episode seems essentially to turn on the alchemic process of turning old rope into fivers by the magical application of egotism, backstabbing and a carefully edited sense of urgency. I’m sure the programme should be instilling some kind of appreciation of the virtues of the ideal businessperson, but the commentary I read over the weekend that most reminded me of the programme was actually an interview with Marianne Faithfull in The Guardian, where her answer to the splendid question “Which of the sins do you feel you have explored most fully?” was as follows:

I’ve had a go at most, but in this piece Brecht turns them all upside down, so that lust becomes love. Pride becomes pride in your work. Envy is actually the hardest sin to make positive.”

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The only thing we have to fear is fear itself.
Franklin D Roosevelt

There you go. Nothing like a well-worn cliché to kick off, and with the apparently imminent (again) collapse of the global financial market and the consequent disintegration of democracies around the world, that is probably as relevant and true today as it was 80 years ago. Except of course, the Armageddon scenario won’t happen because throughout time the brave have overcome the one thing that would precipitate such meltdown; the paralysis of fear and the temptation to sit on the touchline and watch the whole sorry saga dissolve before their frozen, staring eyes. (Caveat: if it does happen, by then you’ll have hopefully forgotten that you read it here first and have more important things to worry about.)

Robert Terry’s recent blog All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing”, or “Kirkpatrick must go! put forward an interesting ‘conspiracy theory’ slant to the whole training evaluation debate, and it got me thinking that the root cause of the lethargy that contributes to the huge sums that are wasted on training events might just be because it’s all a bit scary. Even in such austere market conditions, why are so many of our corporate leaders apparently content to sit back and watch the money flow out through their Learning & Development budgets? Why do they seem satisfied when they have a team who return from their development experience having made some new friends, are a bit more motivated and, at best, have transcended as individuals into better human beings, albeit not actually able to contribute anything of demonstrable additional value to the business?

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Every now and then, a foolish notion takes such a firm grip on the public consciousness that no amount of hard evidence to the contrary can persuade its believers to put aside their convictions and embrace what is frequently an unpalatable or less interesting truth. Some such notions emanate from the ‘supernatural’ school and demand high levels of blind faith from their adherents. The absence of anything remotely evidential in the stories that surround faith-based urban myths presents no problem to their originators who, through their powers of persuasion and the vulnerabilities of their audience, succeed in recruiting armies of supporters to their cause. The uneventful passing once more of Harold Camping’s revised deadline for the end of the world on 21st October is unlikely to persuade his followers that The End Times is a put-up job any more than readers of horoscopes will cancel their subscriptions just because none of the foretold events actually happen. Faith like bindweed once established, is tough to kill.

Some urban myths are lightweight confections whipped up by pranksters seeking nothing more than the inner satisfaction of knowing that they have duped the gullible. The recent Kidney Heist Hoax is a masterpiece of the genre. In its frequent beery re-telling the narrative gathers both mass and momentum like a snowball rolling down a ski slope. Each storyteller attaches his or her own embellishments and invigorates the story by making it their own; or at least “a friend of friend’s”. These myths derive their currency from the frequency with which they are told and the conviction of the teller, no matter how implausible the story itself may be. It would seem that for many, a myth repeated often enough will assume the authority of truth.

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