Tom Wujec presents some surprisingly deep research into the "marshmallow problem" — a simple team-building exercise that involves dry spaghetti, one yard of tape and a marshmallow. Who can build the tallest tower with these ingredients? And why does a surprising group always beat the average?
The Marshmallow Challenge is a remarkably fun and instructive design exercise that encourages teams to experience simple but profound lessons in collaboration, innovation, and creativity.
The task is simple: in eighteen minutes, teams must build the tallest free-standing structure out of 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow. The marshmallow needs to be on top.
Tom states “So there are a number of people who have a lot more “oh-oh” moments than others and among the worst are recent graduates of business school. […] An of course, there are teams that have a lot more “ta-da” structures and among the best are recent graduates of kindergarten. […] And that’s pretty amazing. […] not only do they produce the tallest structures, but they’re the most interesting structures of them all.”
Kids do Better than Business Students: On virtually every measure of innovation, kindergarteners create taller and more interesting structures.
Prototyping Matters: The reason kids do better than business school students is kids spend more time playing and prototyping. They naturally start with the marshmallow and stick in the sticks. The Business School students spend a vast amount of time planning, then executing on the plan, with almost no time to fix the design once they put the marshmallow on top.
The Marshmallow is a Metaphor for the Hidden Assumptions of a Project: The assumption in the Marshmallow Challenge is that marshmallows are light and fluffy and easily supported by the spaghetti sticks. When you actually try to build the structure, the marshmallows don’t seem so light.
The lesson in the marshmallow challenge is that we need to identify the assumptions in our project - the real customer needs, the cost of the product, the duration of the service - and test them early and often. That’s the mechanism that leads to effective innovation.