The Marshmallow Challenge

Marshmallow stuck on to some spaghetti

Marshmallow Challenge from TEDxCanberra 2013 strategy day

Today was our annual TEDxCanberra 2013 strategy day, where we got to meet the team (all highly motivated volunteers from diverse backgrounds), understand the vision for the year and get to know each other better. One of the exercises that we did was the Marshmallow Challenge.

We were split into groups of about 5 people per group. Each group was given 20 spaghetti, some string, some sticky tape, scissors and one marshmallow. The goal? To build the tallest free standing structure that can support the support the marshmallow  in 18 minutes.

The result? None of our groups managed to build a free standing structure but it was a fantastic exercise as it highlighted a range of challenges that’s applicable to our TEDxCanberra event (but oh so applicable to work projects!!!):

  • We often over plan with not enough time for execution
  • Look around at what the competition is doing – you can learn and incorporate bits and pieces of what works
  • Iterate, iterate, iterate – lots of prototyping is good as it helps to identify mistakes early on in the process which allows for more time to iterate the solution
  • The marshmallow is about the weight of an Australian $2 coin – yet many of us didn’t pick up the marshmallow until the end where we discovered that the structures couldn’t support the marshmallow. We assumed that it was light and fluffy but the reality was quite different. This is a great analogy for projects – a number of assumptions are made early on, with solutions based upon these assumptions. Test early, test often.
  • Specialised skill sets (engineers and architects) create the best structures.
  • There is no one correct solution (this is a very important principle). This is also a key reason why Business graduates and CEOs can have trouble doing this exercise. Business graduates (MBAs) are trained to find and create the one correct plan, then execute it. But when the marshmallow is placed on top at the end, the structure falls over and there’s no time to fix it! Kindergarteners prototype – they stick a spaghetti into the marshmallow and keep going from there.
I’m going to try this in the next design thinking/design workshop that I run as it’s a fantastic innovation, creativity and collaboration exercise. If you’re interested in running this yourself, check out The Marshmallow Challenge website, run by Tom Wujec.
Also, check out the related TED talk by Tom Wujec titled Build a tower, build a team:

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