Start With the Marshmallow on Top

Accountability Collaboration Teamwork


Key point: I recently participated in the “Marshmallow Challenge.”

The mission is to build the largest structure you can with 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string and one marshmallow that has to be placed at the top of the structure. Over my career, I have participated in similar activities and I’m always surprised about team dynamics. There is always one team that connects better and achieves the best result. And as much as these “training events” can feel contrived, I must admit that there is real meaningful learning from observing and participating in them.

In his TED talk “Build a tower, build a team”, Tom Wujec shares his findings from performing this challenge with a variety of different groups like recent business school graduates, lawyers, engineers, CEOs, and even kindergarten students. As you would expect (and thank goodness) architects and engineers do the best over all. But kindergarten kids perform better than many other teams, including groups of MBA students. After conducting this challenge with hundreds of groups there are a number of key learning’s. However I want to highlight three that really stuck with me during my recent marshmallow meltdown.

1. Start with the marshmallow on top! It’s about fast continuous feedback and prototype.

In our group we tried to execute on the grand design, culminating with ceremoniously placing the marshmallow on top. Of course, with the assigned time running out and my group frantically trying to complete the task, the structure completely collapsed as we crowned the marshmallow. Every kindergarten class likely would have done better than our group did. Teams that prototype, get continuous feedback and fail or succeed fast, do better. Kindergarten kids seem to more naturally adopt an iterative process of testing and reviewing outcomes to improve and refine their design. By having this immediate feedback, as opposed to finding out afterwards from the exercise organizers what they could have done to improve their structure, the children were able to create some of the tallest structures among the various participants in this challenge.

2. Foster a culture where listening and challenging assumptions is revered.

Another reason why kindergarteners performed better than many adults is because they are more open to ideas and suggestions. They are better at peer review and focusing on the objective. They not only do a better job of prototyping, starting with the marshmallow on top and building from there, they also seem to handle listening and challenging assumptions in a more robust way. As Wujec humorously points out, there is less jockeying around to see who should be “CEO of Spaghetti Inc.” In our group, one of our team members had the best idea (as proven later by the group with the highest structure). However, instead of really listening to this person’s suggested approach, we somehow went a different direction that didn’t workout. We didn’t listen well enough and the person with the winning approach gave up too easily.

3. Everyone has to understand the PICTURE to fully contribute.

Structural design is not a strength of mine. When a couple of people took the lead on the design during the marshmallow challenge, I honestly couldn’t understand the approach. So in an effort to provide value and not slow down the group, I eventually sought out the tape-cutting job because I knew it needed to be done. But I couldn’t fully participate because I just didn’t get it. I had a responsibility to better understand the proposed design solution. If I had fought for that understanding, I would have added value and I would have also discovered that I was not alone. I don’t think most of us fully understood it but we all worked feverishly to make “it” happen anyway. Hmm…

Character Move:

  1. Determine where you might be able to put the marshmallow on top first and fast prototype. Get quick and continuous feedback. This applies to personal plans as well as business activities. We don’t have to bet the “farm” before we see whether we’re going in the right direction.
  2. Are you challenging some assumptions you know should be? Are you inviting assumptions to be challenged? Why not? What will you do about it? Be accountable.
  3. Understand the vision and the path to get there. If you don’t, you’ll end up just cutting tape and that won’t be gratifying for very long.

Marshmallow on top in The Triangle,