The Sticky Lessons of the Marshmallow Challenge

This team task is an interesting example of how different groups approach the same problem.

It also has some surprising results:

  • Preschool kids outperform business school graduates and CEOs
  • Big incentives can lead to worse performing teams

The challenge is for teams to build the tallest freestanding structure with 20 sticks of spaghetti, a yard of sticky tape, a yard of string and a marshmallow in 18 minutes.  

The reason for the difference in performance:

  • Business school graduates have been trained to develop the best plan upfront, whereas kids “try stuff” and iterate on that.
  • The hidden assumption is that marshmallows are light and there’s only one, so that can just be placed on top at the end, right? Kids will spend most of their time budget developing and will implicitly uncover the assumption quickly, whereas those that discuss, theorize and plan for the bulk of the task will miss out and will hit crisis near the end. But for those that iterate, there’s always a working solution in place that they can fall back to.

Note that architects and engineers perform best of all, as this problem (building self-reinforcing structures) is essentially their key focus each day anyway.

The other observation occurs when the teams are offered a significant reward for winning. Without any reward, typically 60% of teams end up with a freestanding structure, but with the reward this dropped to zero! The implication here is that the pressure of the incentive drives people to discuss and plan more diligently, rather than develop and refine.

Originating from one of the founders of IDEO, Dennis Boyle, it was first shown at TED 2006 by Peter Skillman who worked at Palm (and now head of design at Nokia HERE maps). It was used by Tom Wujec of Autodesk many times, and the patterns he observed are discussed in his Ted Talk and on his site where there’s a transcript of his talk.


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