4 Project Management Lessons Learned from The Celebrity Apprentice Season Finale

Reality TV is all too often a genre of television that has nothing to do with real life. But in the case of The Celebrity Apprentice on NBC, where good project management means the difference between winning and losing, there really is a kernel of truth to be dug out of the spectacle. In the recent season finale, it came down to Penn Jillette of Penn & Teller fame versus Grammy-nominated country music artist Trace Adkins in a task where the winner would receive $250,000 for his selected charity. Both contestants faced challenges in the final task that they dealt with in smart ways, and the result was an episode of reality television where, yes, you could actually stand to learn something.

The Task

The task was to create a new flavor of Walgreens Delish brand premium ice cream, produce a “viral” video promoting the ice cream, and raise money for a launch event for the new flavor. Problems arose immediately for Penn and Adkins both when it came to naming their respective new ice creams. La Toya Jackson invented the word “swirtle,” combining caramel “swirl” and “turtle” chocolate, for Penn. He loved the cutesiness of the word, but the problem was that consumers would not know what a swirtle is. His solution was to define “swirtle” right on the ice cream container itself in a colorful and humorous way. The Walgreen executives ended up loving the final name, “Vanilla & Chocolate Magic Swirtle.” The project management (PM) takeaway here is that enough good communication can overcome almost any challenge, even when you are letting La Toya Jackson play Frankenstein with the English language.

The issue Adkins meanwhile had to face in naming his ice cream was whether or not to trust his teammates’ judgement. Actress Marilu Henner and hip hop artist ‘Lil Jon believed in the name “Maple Macadamia Mash-Up,” feeling that “mash-up” especially was a musical term that would resonate with a youthful audience. However, to Adkins, “mash-up” just made him think of potatoes. In the end, Adkins yielded to his teammates’ judgement, and the Walgreen executives ultimately loved the use of “mash-up” precisely for its youthful implications. The PM lesson here is that when you know you have strong teammates, you have to be willing to take a leap of faith on them sometimes, especially when they are strong in areas where you lack sufficient knowhow.

Challenges and Solutions

New challenges cropped up when it came to making a video to promote the ice cream. Penn’s team created a video featuring a Penn & Teller magic trick and Las Vegas showgirls, with Dennis Rodman making a surprise appearance for the punch line at the end. The video was great, but it was nine seconds too long. Penn reluctantly cut Rodman’s appearance to make up the nine seconds, but in a clever twist, he repackaged those nine seconds of lost footage as a “behind-the-scenes/behind-the-magic” video that he aired to everyone in attendance at the launch event. The result was that he had a fun video enjoyed by all, and the extra behind-the-scenes video was welcomed by the audience as an exciting surprise bonus. The PM nugget to be extracted this time is that creativity can be a powerful weapon against what otherwise seems like a nagging dilemma. When conventional methods fail, outside-the-box thinking can be a magic trick in itself for turning a negative into a positive.

Adkins had a different kind of challenge within his team, and it came in the form of actor Gary Busey. Busey had become known for being eccentric at best and unmanageably psychotic at worst. Rather than allow Busey to become a distraction, Adkins channeled Busey’s manic creative energy in ways that benefited the team. For the viral video, Adkins had Busey do a crazy dance that (within the video) becomes a craze that people love imitating. And at the launch event, Adkins surprised everyone by having Busey reprise his role as Buddy Holly from The Buddy Holly Story, and Busey sang a Buddy Holly song for everyone. The Walgreen executives loved the “star power” Busey brought as Holly. The PM lesson here is clear—even the craziest person at your office must have been hired for a reason, and when you give a person tasks that highlight his or her unique skills, you maximize project results. Even better, you look like Einstein for getting high-quality work out of the office kook.

By the end of the task, Penn raised $503,000 for Opportunity Village and Trace Adkins raised $564,000 for the American Red Cross. When all was said and done and it was time to select a winner, Donald Trump chose Adkins, but it really could have gone either way and no one would have raised an eyebrow. Penn and Adkins both demonstrated a great deal of wisdom in the art of project management, and in the process, they did what they could to make reality TV just a little bit more “real.”

But I really think Penn should have won.

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