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Team Building with the Marshmallow Challenge: It´s all about Creativity, Innovation and Collaboratio

What do a handful of uncooked spaghettis, a meter of tape, a meter of string and one marshmallow have to do with the skills executives need to shape the future and strengthen their corporate success? Whether you´ve heard of it, taken part in it, run it or have no idea what I am referring to, it is a challenge definitely worth taking on!

The Marshmallow Challenge was invented by Peter Skillman of Palm Inc. and popularized by Tom Wujec of Autodesk just a couple of years ago. Globally experimented, it has been tested from kindergarteners to graduate students, all the way to some of today´s most successful executives and leaders. We have organised several of these Challenges with clients in Spain and the results are consistently insightful.

So what does it consist of exactly, and what is its purpose? First, you should know that this noteworthy challenge is both a fun and instructive team exercise, which objective is to demonstrate the importance of creativity, innovation and collaboration between team members in the workplace.

The challenge is actually very simple to organize and easily put together. Start by handing out to each team the different components of the challenge. Then, deliver clear instructions so that everyone understands them, and emphasize the purpose of the challenge. Thus, explain that the goal is to build the tallest free-standing structure -and for the smarty-pants, specify that the latter can´t be suspended from a higher structure such as a chair. As for the rules, there are only a handful of them:

  1. The entire marshmallow must be placed on top of the structure; and in case you were wondering, it is forbidden to eat part of it! Similarly, cutting it into different pieces would lead to the disqualification of the whole team.

  2. Team members can use as much (or as little) of the kit they received. Ergo, some teams may only use pieces of strings, while other may stick to tape. Breaking up spaghettis or cutting bits of tape is accepted.

  3. Last but not least, even though taking on the challenge is quite entertaining, it can´t go on forever. Display a stop watch on an overhead projector for everyone to see because the challenge only lasts 18 minutes. At the end of the allocated time, teams are not allowed to hold their structure; indeed, those supporting or touching it will be disqualified.

After having measured the remaining free-standing structures, complimented the winning team and patted on the shoulder the ones who saw their structures collapse at the very last minute; it is time to share some of the valuable lessons the Marshmallow Challenge lead to.

First, an aspect that most teams probably did not have time to consider (the challenge is quite exhilarating!) is that prototyping is key to success. Indeed, prototyping enables to refine the original plan along the way so as to increase the likelihood of having a free-standing structure after time has run out. As I told you, the Marshmallow Challenge has been experimented on a wide range of age of people; and what has been consistently noticed is that while recent business school graduates tend to perform poorly, kindergarteners always find creative ways to keep their structure standing. Why that phenomenon? Well, whereas business students focus on planning and spend most of their time vying for power, they only take into account the weight of the marshmallow at the very last minute, therefore resulting in a wobbly structure. Kindergarteners on the other hand, test the prototype structure many times along the way; thus enabling them to improve it and make sure it will hold once they have added the marshmallow on top.

Another interesting aspect the challenge emphasizes is the importance of diverse skills in teams. This way, during the different stages of the challenge –orienting, planning, building- team members can complement each others; thus increasing the likelihood of having a free-standing structure. But talking about diverse skills, it is also about having people with facilitation skills. In other words, having someone working on facilitating the communication between team members, and engaging everyone in the challenge is key. Consequently, teams composed of people with special skills and others with facilitation skills are more likely to succeed, may it be that particular challenge or actual corporate projects.

If you have not quite understood how the Marshmallow Challenge applies to real life situations, allow me to give you a few more reasons. Figuratively, each project has its own marshmallow; that is the hidden assumptions of the forthcoming outcomes of the project. Indeed, in the case of the Marshmallow Challenge, the premise is that a marshmallow is fluffy; therefore it should easily be supported by the spaghettis. But as you´ll notice, once you are trying to make the structure stands on its own with the marshmallow on top, the marshmallow doesn´t seem that light anymore! In conclusion, systematically identify the assumptions and test them early on in the project.

Another significant angle the Marshmallow Challenge tackles is the importance of developing a common language between team members. It should go without saying, yet, it is oftentimes a neglected point. And along these same lines, because teams are composed of people from different departments and are generally temporary, it is better if team members have a shared experience; that is if that have had a couple of hours to interact beforehand so as to better know the strengths and weaknesses of their workmate.

For Tom Wujec, the challenge has tangible benefits; indeed, according to him “the Marshmallow Challenge is among the fastest and most powerful technique for improving a team´s capacity to generate fresh ideas, build rapport and incorporate prototyping – all of which lie at the heart of effective innovation”.

If you would like to learn more about the Marshmallow Challenge and how we can organise your very own office challenge complete with our trained facilitators let us know HERE

And if after all of this you still doubt the effectiveness of the challenge and are unsure whether or not to try it, here is my last incentive: the Marshmallow Challenge is a great way to break the ice at the beginning of a meeting, so why not give it a try?!

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