The Marshmallow Challenge  a Team Building Exercise

The challenge, if you don’t know it, is a fun and instructive design exercise that encourages teams to experience simple but profound lessons in collaboration, innovation and creativity.

The challenge seems simple enough: small teams have to build a structure in 18 minutes using 20 sticks of spaghetti, 1 yard of tape, 1 yard of string and 1 marshmallow. The winning team is the one that can construct the tallest freestanding structure with the marshmallow on top within the time allowed. The point of the exercise is to collaborate very quickly in order to respond to the task. It reveals some surprising lessons about the nature of collaboration.

We spent a little time getting our heads around the task, jockeying for power, then laying out the materials and talking through the approach (the planning stage). Then we spent most of the remaining time taping spaghetti together and wrapping string around arbitrary bits of the structure (the build stage). Then, with seconds to spare, someone grabbed the marshmallow and popped it on top of our structure. Needless to say, it fell over!

The challenge has been done hundreds of times and the results are intriguing.

  • Who performs poorly?
    Recent business school graduates. Why? They cheat and get distracted. They try to find the single correct plan and then attempt to execute that. They run out of time and when they put the marshmallow on top, it’s a crisis. Sound familiar?
  • Who performs well?
    Kindergarten kids. Why? First of all, none of the kids spend time trying to become CEO of Spaghetti Inc.! More importantly, they start with the marshmallow and then build successive prototypes, all the time keeping the marshmallow on top until they find a solution that works.

Kindergarten kids prototype and refine. They adopt an iterative, collaborative process and get instant feedback on what does and doesn’t work.

The lesson learned from all this fun? The capacity to experiment and prototype is essential to success.

What Can We Learn From This?

We all want to avoid the uh-oh moment when the marshmallow causes the structure to collapse. The Marshmallow Challenge teaches us that prototyping and iterating can help achieve success. It also shows that success is dependent upon close collaboration between team members.

Here are some simple tips to help keep your marshmallow on top of your eLearning projects:

  1. Prototype.
    Use tools that let you build a quick and dirty prototype while involving every member of your team. Cloud-based tools like Elucidat empower your team to work together simultaneously. You can quickly try out ideas, make modifications, and refine your end product. It’s easy to get started with Elucidat. It comes with pre-built screens that your team can experiment with so you don’t have any costly coding up front.
  2. Iterate.
    Build courses from a single Course Master (template) so that your team doesn’t waste time on recreating screens again and again. This saves a bunch of time because if something isn’t quite right, you can trash it and quickly start again.
  3. Collaborate.
    Online tools make it easy for your team to work together at the same time on the same course. There’s no need to package up the files and send them around to the team via email or via the network. Instead, files are kept in one place and are constantly and automatically updated with everyone’s work. This really saves time and headaches with version control when you have several team members all working on a course at the same time.
    Related: Why Online Collaboration Is The Solution To Your Learning And Development Team’s Efficiency Problem
  4. Feedback.
    Encourage your team and your Subject Matter Experts to work on the project at the same time. Make use of comment and review systems so you can get feedback from the Subject Matter Expert. By encouraging this direct feedback, you can handle changes within the project itself, so you don’t need external bug-tracking or reporting software to manage the process.
  5. Improve.
    Since your whole team can see changes and updates, they can use this knowledge to make improvements as they go. Instead of making the same mistake throughout the project, you can run quality control in real time, as the project is being built. This will help you catch any issues early so you can make changes and modifications straight away (rather than dealing with lots at the end of the project).
  6. Keep files together.
    Keep all of your files together so your whole team can reuse them when needed. Most authoring tools will let you manage images and media files together in one place so you don’t waste time searching for or emailing around files that they need.

Final Thoughts

As we saw with The Marshmallow Challenge, team collaboration is much like a contact sport – you have to get your sleeves rolled up and get stuck in. Collaboration helps get everyone involved in the process right from the start so you can reach that ta-da! moment at the end of the challenge.

We need to learn from our kindergarten colleagues. By getting started and focusing on iterating the process, we can implement what works and quickly throw out what doesn’t work. This approach ensures that when we reach the end of the project, the marshmallow is sitting firmly on top.