Collaboration and The Marshmallow Challenge

Some years ago Tom Wujec, author, Senior Fellow at Auto Desk and an amazing graphic illustrator gave a TED talk called “The Marshmallow Challenge”(video below). In the talk he described how different groups of individuals approach a technical design problem.  The objective of the exercise was for each group to build the tallest free-standing structure in 18 minutes with one yard of tape, one yard of string, 20 sticks of spaghetti and a marshmallow. The groups in this exercise ranged from CEOs to MBAs to lawyers, engineers, architects and kindergartners. The results of this challenge showed how these different groups worked together on the challenge.

Perhaps the most surprising result of this experiment was that the children did better than the CEOs and the MBAs were the worst!  The reason the children did so much better was because their design process included prototypes and instant feedback from each other sharing what they learned along the way. They discarded the failed ideas and built on their successful structures. The MBAs on the other hand spent much of their time debating who would be in charge and what plans they would follow. Architects and engineers did pretty well.  The message taken from this exercise is that how we collaborate is influenced by our habits and the cultures we come from. Understanding and managing those cultures is essential for effective collaboration.