Lessons From the Marshmallow Challenge

In 1988 Robert Fulghum wrote the #1 New York Times best-selling “All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten.” It contained such gems as “Play fair.” “Put things back where you found them.” “Clean up your own mess.” “Live a balanced life.”

The simple reminders of the book seemed to resonate with many people across the world. That book, plus his seven other non-fiction books, have sold more than 17 million copies in 103 countries.

I was reminded of that book recently when I watched a fascinating TED Talk by Peter Skillman, formerly the VP of Design at Palm. He talked about an experiment he conducts with marshmallows and spaghetti and the surprising results he learned from one group.

The Marshmallow Design Challenge is conducted with teams of four that each has 18 minutes to create the tallest freestanding structure possible with 20 pieces of spaghetti, a meter of tape, one piece of string and one marshmallow.

photo (4)He had been conducting the experiment for years with groups that included engineering students from top U.S. schools, telecom engineers from Taiwan, business school students and lawyers when he learned something that shocked him.

While architects and engineers consistently built the tallest, most stable structures, he found that kindergartners, on every objective measure, scored higher than every other group of adults.

The lowest performing? Business school students. Many of them got zeros on the experiment. Lawyers didn’t fare much better.

So the question is why did five years olds perform so much better and what can we learn from that? Peter found two key factors that differentiated the kindergarten teams.

• They don’t waste time seeking power. “Kindergarteners do not spend 15 minutes in a bunch of status transactions trying to figure out who is going to be CEO of Spaghetti Corporation. They just start building,” he said. “This gives them a better and immediate understanding of the structural properties of spaghetti.”

• They don’t sit around talking about the problem. They just start building to determine what works and what doesn’t. If something doesn’t work, they discard it and try another method, employing what Silicon Valley refers to as “Fail fast, fail often.”

Here are a few more lessons Peter says he has learned from conducting this experiment with almost 1,000 people.

  • Building develops your intuitions about how process and materials are connected.
  • You learn by doing, discovering problems you can’t predict in advance.
  • Simultaneous iteration allows you to see a lot of good ideas.
  • Being first to market isn’t always the best.
  • Multiple iterations usually beat a commitment to making your first idea work.
  • All projects have resource constraints; however, you can often get additional resources. But you’ll never get them if you don’t ask.
  • Exercises like this illustrate the value of deadlines.
  • Encourage wild ideas: What if I tied the structure to the ceiling?

Many corporations have used the Marshmallow Design Challenge with their teams, which takes less than an hour and costs just a few dollars to conduct.

Tom Wujec, a Fellow at Autodesk, is a big believer in it, and gave his own TED Talk on it. “I believe the marshmallow challenge is among the fastest and most powerful technique for improving a team’s capacity to generate fresh ideas, build rapport and incorporate prototyping, all of which lie at the heart of effective innovation.”

If you’d like to conduct your own Marshmallow Design Challenge, you can find the rules here. Chances are you’ll have fun and learn something to improve your business. And you can always make S’Mores after you’re done.

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