When to use this exercise
This exercise can be used when you are looking for a problem-solving exercise that challenges people’s assumptions. The marshmallow challenge is a great way to push a group of people to build, test and iterate. This activity encourages critical thinking and provokes people to demonstrate resilience in the face of challenges or frustrations.
The purpose of this fun exercise is to encourage a group or team to work together, utilise their problem solving skills, learn to fail fast and inspire creativity.
- In advance, prepare one bag or envelope containing the items - 20 sticks of spaghetti, 1 metre of string, 1 metre of tape, 1 marshmallow
- Gather your group and divide them into small teams of approx 4 to 8 people.
- Distribute one kit to each small group.
- Instruct the groups to use (only) the contents of the kits to build the tallest free-standing structure, and to place the marshmallow on top (highest peak of structure.)
- Explain that every group has exactly 20 minutes to complete the task. Show the passage of time to the group during the exercise.
- Groups are permitted to use as little or all of their resources and break the spaghetti, string and tape as they choose.
- Measure the constructions with the measuring tape. The team with the tallest (free-standing) structure supporting the highest marshmallow at the end of the time, wins. Offer a prize to the ‘winning’ group if you wish.
- Debrief for 10 minutes and ask questions like was the task more difficult than you thought? Why? What was the hardest part of this challenge? Easiest? What have you learned? Was there a leader in your team? Who was it and who decided who the leader would be? If you had no leader, do you think having designated someone a leader would have helped? If you had a leader, how did he/she do? What leadership practice did he/she use? Did anyone appear to be an expert? Did any team members tune out of the activity — out of frustration with other members or for some other reason? What could you have done to keep all members of the group fully engaged? Did you feel everyone's ideas were well received during the activity? How did you feel as the time limit was approaching? Did pressure increase? If yes, was that helpful or not? Where might new ideas have come from given your time constraint? Did you celebrate small wins? If yes, how did you do this? Did you make any assumptions during the exercise? What would you do differently if you had the chance to rebuild the tower? How would you have challenged the process?
In many cases, three key lessons may come up during a debrief of this exercise:
- Children do better than adults, especially in the area of business and management – on almost every measure of creativity, children create taller and more interesting structures. Why? They are not bound by rules, engineering degrees and assumptions.
- Prototyping matters – the reason children do better than adults, is that young people spend more time playing and testing. They naturally start with the marshmallow and poke in the sticks. Adults generally spend a lot more time planning, then executing on the plan, with almost no time to fix their structure’s design once they put the marshmallow on top (and then discover the third lesson.)
- The marshmallow is a metaphor for the hidden assumptions of a project: Most people assume that marshmallows are light and fluffy and easily supported by the spaghetti sticks. Yet, when a group starts to build their structure, they discover that marshmallows are a lot heavier than they appear. Therefore, the lesson is – we must always identify the assumptions in any task / project – the real needs of our customers, the real cost of a product, etc – and test them early and often. This is the process which leads to effective innovation.