Would You Win the Marshmallow Challenge? Probably not.

CaptureSome guy called Peter Skillman has been conducting the Marshmallow Challenge for years. I think he’s some kind of design guru.

He says the challenge is about learning how to design stuff, but this applies widely, from designing a phone to organisational design…I think it’s just about getting things done with other people.

Your objective is to build a free standing tower that can hold a marshmallow as high as possible.

You get three colleagues, some spaghetti, tape, string, a marshmallow and 18 minutes.

Peter has a lot of data points now. He has looked at all sorts of people, but mostly business school students; CEOs; lawyers; architects and engineers (together) and recent kindergarten graduates (which, after 20 seconds on Google I think is a stupid way of saying 5 year olds).

The architects and engineers always win.

Thank goodness. It has to be this way really, doesn’t it?

In second place come the 5 year olds. Yup.

Five. Year. Old. Children.

In third place we have the CEOs.

Then the lawyers.

And finally, in last place, we have the business school students.

OK so far so funny. But why?

Lesson 1 – prototyping matters.

Most teams talk about the problem. Then they plan. Then they build. Finally, under extreme time pressure, they quickly finish their structure and then stick the marshmallow on top. They give themselves one go and one go only. And almost half fall over. Utter failure.

The kids are different. They build straight away and put a marshmallow on top. No discussion. No planning. They build straight away and then they add to it. Or change it. Always keeping the marshmallow on top. They get to their first solution very quickly and improve upon it from there. They get instant feedback on what works and what doesn’t. They have many attempts and they end with their best shot.  

Lesson 2 – diverse skills matter.

The architects and engineers always win. They know what they’re doing. The business students and lawyers spend too much time seeking power (Peter is fond of saying the kids do not argue about who is going to be CEO of Spaghetti Ltd). They plan and plan and plan.  

Here’s an interesting observation – the CEOs consistently came second, beating the children, if they were aided by a facilitator. Any team member who pays close attention to the process of the work – encouraging, watching the clock, improving communication and cross-pollinating ideas – increases team performance significantly.

So, winning teams are specialists but the next best thing is teams with facilitation skills.

Lesson 3 – incentives magnify outcomes.

Both good and bad.

Four out of ten teams build a structure at the end of the time that falls over.

But when Peter introduced an incentive to some design students, ($10K of software to the winner!!) not one team produced a standing structure.  Not one. When repeating the incentive test with those who understood the benefit of just getting on with the building, they produced the tallest towers in the shortest time.

So incentives seem to amplify the result: low skill and high incentives equals disaster. High skill and high incentives equals success.

So what to do?

It really is profound that young children can beat all but the most highly skilled adults at a task like the Marshmallow Challenge.

Somewhere along the way as we grew up we have learned behaviours that hinder us (fear of failure, love of status, win-lose thinking etc). We only get away with this nonsense because everyone is so afflicted. But there’s got to be mileage (as well as fun) in approaching life like a child – roll your sleeves up, get stuck in, and leave your hang-ups behind.

2 Responses to Would You Win the Marshmallow Challenge? Probably not.

  1. Keith Plumb January 20, 2014 at 10:06 am #

    Very inspirational as ever

  2. Eilidh Milnes January 20, 2014 at 1:56 pm #

    Thanks Mark. I’ve been a fan of the marshmallow team activity for years. Nice to see this blog post expanding the theory.

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