Sunday, May 07, 2006

The Apprentice UK - When to trust your henchmen, and when to trust your gut

Are you, like many in the UK, addicted to the 2nd series of The Apprentice?Over the last 3 months, 10000 applicants have been whittled down to the last few. This week there were 4 – Ruth “The Badger”, the probable favourite, Michelle - “the pretty blonde” Dewberry, Paul “I’m brilliant” Tulip and Ansell “Mr. Nice Guy” Henry. This week, instead of the usual task, they were all subject to interviews from three of Sir Alan Sugar’s henchmen. What’s more, two would-be apprentices were going to be get the boot this week. The poor things didn’t know what hit them. Paul, who previously hadn’t put a foot wrong, completely lost the plot. When his interviewer told him “I admire your integrity in telling me that you lie and cheat everyday”, the irony appeared completely lost on him. As one reviewer put it, Paul was not so much fired as “rocketed into space”. The only apprenticeship he would get on this performance would be to the Office's David Brent.

The series has done no harm at all to Sir Alan Sugar, whose star may seem to have been on the wane following the decline of his Amstrad word-processors and his dismal foray into football chairmanship. When none of the candidates turned out to know what Amstrad did these days, we were even willing to accept this as a deficiency of the apprentices, rather than a comment on the state of Sugar’s company. And whilst Sugar would still be high on my list of possibles for the part of the Vogon Fleet Commander in the Hitch-Hikers Guide to the Galaxy, his gruff belligerence has somehow come over as rather endearing. But -and this is a big but - would you really want to work for Sir Alan and his henchmen? Or are they a throwback to the grim, unenlightened 1980s of Margaret Thatcher and Norman Tebbit? Have these people got a heart? Could they utter the phrase “work-life balance” without an accompanying sneer? Claude's interview with Michelle had me shaking my head in disbelief. Part of it went something like this …

Henchman (Claude): Michelle, you’ve said on your CV that you’ve got integrity, common-sense and a good sense of instinct. A good sense of instinct, that’s what interests me, what does that mean?

Michelle “Instinct gives you your initial steer. When I’ve got a gut feeling I know whether something feels right.”

Claude (incredulously). “It feels right - in business? … What does “feels right” mean?”

Michelle. “I can’t explain it. It’s just something inside of you”

Claude (interrupting, and contemptuous) “That’s absolute nonsense. Michelle, if you are in business and you are serious about business, you can’t be instinctive. You can’t just say (puts on a silly voice) ‘I’ve got a feeling in my water’".

(Speaking now as if a parent to a little girl who had asked for her third ice cream)
"It’s ridiculous. It’s ridiculous.”

After the interrogation (sorry, interview) he had even 'cold fish' Michelle whimpering
“Jesus … He’s made me feel that small ...”

At times like these, wouldn't it be great if the tables could be turned, and just for once you could put the interrogator in the interviewee's chair ...

If I was on the panel assessing Claude’s own performance, this is what I'd say to him:-

“Claude, are you aware that it is now widely accepted amongst experts both in business and in psychology, that gut feeling, instinct, hunches – call them what you will – have an important part of play in management? Has Daniel Goleman’s classic Emotional Intelligence been published in vain? Are you aware that emotional intelligence is as important , if not more so, than IQ ? Were Goleman here today, he’d probably say to you “Our gut feelings …provide critical information that we must not ignore … Intuition and gut feeling bespeak the capacity to sense messages from our internal store of emotional memory - our own reservoir of wisdom and judgement.” Do you care to argue with Goleman?

Claude, I wonder whether you are to speed on your Harvard Business Review on Decision-Making? An entire article there would tell you “When to Trust Your Gut in Business”. And no, Claude, the answer is not “never.” Had you read it, The Review would have informed you that we all subconsciously review past experiences relevant to the situation at hand - and we label this 'intuition' or 'instinct'. If you get good results from following your intuition – as Michelle claims she does– then that is a really great asset in business. “Experts see patterns that elicit from memory the things they know about such situations” said no lesser authority than Herbert A. Simon, a Nobel Laureate and Professor of Psychology and Computer Science.

"What's that, Claude? You don't trust academics, not even Nobel-winning ones. Well, how about former AOL President Bob Pittman? He backs up the importance of intuition from the vantage point of big business. When he gets a bunch of data, Pittman asks “What does it all mean? There’s a message there.” Then one day, he says, “the overall picture comes to me.” Yes, Claude, I too wonder whether it was his gut feeling that told Pittman to leave AOL in 2002 (again, probably a good call).

“So Claude, he who says “Gut feelings have no place in business” (and it probably would be a he, frankly) is the one being ridiculous. We all have gut feelings, and the wise business-person - and the wise person in general - notices these intuitions and knows how and when to use them.”

“ Indeed, Claude, when you and your fellow the henchmen all agreed that, despite his impressive results in the previous 10 weeks, Paul should be fired, you were all following your gut instinct. As one of you said “You can find 4 Pauls in the Peugot salesroom down the road and 3 of them will be wearing better suits”. You knew that your instincts, based on a 20 minute interview and 20 years of experience, told you more than any amount of statistics from the previous 10 week’s tasks.”

“Claude, I’m sorry to say that your denial of the usefulness of gut feelings in business is outdated and, to put it bluntly, just plain wrong. It's a serious misjudgement, and has no place in a twenty-first century outfit."

"Claude, you’re fired!”