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Can You Beat the Marshmallow Challenge?

1-30 marshmallow challenge smallHow can twenty sticks of spaghetti, a yard of tape, a yard of string, and one marshmallow help build a stronger team?

The Marshmallow Challenge has become a popular exercise in which small groups are asked to build the “tallest free-standing structure” out of the materials provided. The teams have eighteen minutes to complete this task including the entire marshmallow on top. It’s a fun and instructive exercise that allows teams to experience simple lessons in collaboration, innovation and creativity.

The challenge has been conducted with business school graduates, CEOs, architects, engineers, and even kindergarteners. There have been surprising findings for which groups perform most successfully. Surprisingly, recent business school graduates are among the worst performers and kindergarteners often excel at this challenge. The children don’t spend time fighting to be the leader of the group. Instead, they just start playing and in the process begin prototyping. Business school grads spend most of the time talking, planning and building, which means they don’t have much time to change the design when it finally comes time to put the marshmallow on top which is usually too heavy for the structure that was built.

The teambuilding lessons from the marshmallow challenge include:

Always test assumptions through prototyping: Participants think that marshmallows are light and will be easily supported, but when teams start building the structure, it suddenly tips it over. Only through realizing that every idea has value and then prototyping various solutions can the teams find out what works.

Don’t focus on being the tallest. When the instruction is given that the tallest will win, teams assume that height will win the contest. As a result, they wrongly focus on how high they can build the structure instead of the stability its base. Many times, companies try to grow too fast before they have a solid business.

Use what is available. Development of every product has limitations and teams can only use what they have and not get resources they want to build something better. In business, there is never unlimited resources or the perfect environment to grow.

Use only what is needed. There are some things that are given in the exercise that do not need to be used like the string. Teams have to figure out what is useful and what needs to be discarded in developing any solutions.

Give up perfection. Teams start out dreaming about building an elegant structure like the Eiffel Tower. They have to give up this idea of perfection and build something (even if it is ugly) that works that can be “good enough” to win.

If you’re looking for a fun way to kick start a meeting or get a team into a creative frame of mind, try running a marshmallow challenge of your own. Is your team up to it?

About the author

Barry Moltz helps small businesses get unstuck. He applies simple, strategic steps to facilitate change. Barry has founded and run small businesses with a great deal of success and failure for more than 20 years. He is a small business speaker, radio host and author of four books. As a member of the Entrepreneurship Hall of Fame, he has spoken to audiences of up to 20,000 people. He is a regular guest on business radio and cable TV programming.