The Marshmallow Challenge


Here is a competition you can use at your next innovation or team workshop.   It was initially introduced at TED by Ted Skillman.

Set up:     Organize your group into teams of 4 people leaving one group not to be competitors, but observers.

Supplies:   For each team, you will need 20 sticks of uncooked spaghetti (Avoid spaghettini as it is too thin and breaks easily, and fettucine is too thick), one yard of string (if it is too thick to be broken by hand, then you will need to include scissors for each team), one yard of masking tape, and one marshmallow (regular ones. . . don’t use the mini- or jumbo varieties).  Each observer should have a clip board or at least a note pad to record their observations. You will need a tape measure (to judge the winner), and a stop watch – (if you use a PC with a projector you can use a free on-line stop watch application to show the countdown . . . as this adds to the pressure on the teams.)

Launch the competition:    Give each team 18 minutes to design the largest free-standing structure they can using these ingredients, but the Marshmallow must sit at the very top.

The instructions should be clear before you commence – the structure must be free-standing (not hanging from above nor held up by a team member), and the WHOLE marshmallow must be held up (not just a piece). They do not need to use all the pieces, and the spaghetti, string and tape can be broken into pieces.

As the teams begin their work the observers challenge is to watch the different teams operate and to document the PROCESS they saw used, and, if possible, map out the process as if it were a timeline.

They probably will see something like this:

Ask them to observe the interactions, how the group worked together, and what process steps they seemed to follow (even if it does not look like the chart above).  Ask them to consider what worked, and what didn’t.  The observers can look at all the groups if they wish, but each one should have the assignment of telling the design experience story from one of the competing teams.

At the end of the competition, call a break, and invite the observers to organize their thoughts about each group.  Your job was to assess if there was a clear WINNER and a clear LOSER among the teams (paying special attention in your de-brief to consider the contrasts in style among the best and worst performing groups.)

De-brief:  First, congratulate the winner, and ask that group’s observer to describe what he/she saw.   Invite the team to describe what worked and didn’t from their perspective.  Invite other observers to add comments if appropriate.  Then turn to one of the losing teams, and go through the same debrief.   Then ask the entire group to identify what they feel were the most significant factors that seemed to differentiate the best from the worst in terms of their Group Behaviors, and their Group Process.

Next, ask the group to watch the following TED Talk on Building a Marshmallow Tower

Did you find the description of how kindergartners approach this problem to be interesting?   Note the idea of building prototypes, using a continuous cycle of trial and error, group learning and improvement.

Final Learning:   Next, get the group to discusses

  • the pros and cons of the linear vs the iterative process
  • the ways that incentives affect the creative process
  • the behaviors (team culture elements) that seem to increase the likelihood of success
  • What assumptions they started with that ultimately hampered them (like thinking a marshmallow is light and fluffy, but discovering that it is “heavy” relative to the spaghetti.

Will the group consider the team projects not only can but SHOULD be messy, discontinuous, iterative, and filled with struggle and failures (ones we can learn from).  Or will they prefer the linear approach like the chart above?

I think you can guess which one we like.

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1 Comment

Filed under Innovation

One response to “The Marshmallow Challenge

  1. Thanks Len, we did this with a e-commerce company yesterday and the two teams both created standing structures! People who recently had lack of respect/trust in each other learned that EVERYONE had at least some helpful input, without which the team would have failed. Really had a great discussion afterward about the iterative design process we SHOULD be using everyday vs. trying to get it perfect the first time out of the chute.

    The video was instructive too- highly recommend. Upward! JP

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