With 18 minutes, 20 sticks of spaghetti, a yard of tape, a yard of string and one marshmallow, Tom Wujec believes he can tell you how innovative any team is.
Here’s how: After giving a four-member team the list of supplies mentioned above, Wujec asks them to build the tallest free-standing structure they can. The only rule: The marshmallow needs to be on top.
“I believe the Marshmallow Challenge is among the fastest and most powerful techniques 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,” says Wujec, who is a Fellow at Autodesk, the leading 2D and 3D technology firm.
He has used the exercise with CEOs, business-school students and kindergartners. And he has learned some surprising lessons about the nature of collaboration. Among them:
√ “Ta-da!” can quickly turn to “Uh-oh.” Most people begin by orienting themselves to the task, he says. They talk about what their structure will look like, sketch it out and jockey for aposition in the group.
Wujec says, “They spend most of their time assembling the structure, then just as they’re running out of time, they gingerly put a marshmallow on top. They stand back and admire their work—‘Ta-da!’”
Then the entire structure collapses under the weight of the marshmallow.
√ Rapid prototyping is the name of the game. Recent graduates of kindergarten tend to perform best in the Marshmallow Challenge. They produce the tallest and most interesting structures.
Why? No one spends any time trying to be CEO of Spaghetti Inc.
Kindergartners, unlike other groups, start with the idea of the marshmallow and work backward, building multiple prototypes along the way. Kids get instant feedback with each version about what works and what doesn’t—in other words, they use an iterative process—so they don’t end up with a collapsed structure at the last moment.
√ CEOs perform best with an executive admin on the team. Why? Admins facilitate and manage the process. Facilitation skills plus specialized skills equals success.
Ultimately, says Wujec, the Marshmallow Challenge helps people find hidden assumptions, build a common language and learn how to manage the marshmallow.
— Adapted from MarshmallowChallenge.com.