This week I challenged the Jenco office team to a challenge of sorts, a marshmallow challenge. We divided everyone up and presented them with a kit consisting of 20 sticks of spaghetti noodles, 1 yard of tape, 1 yard of string and 1 marshmallow. The challenge was to build the tallest freestanding structure with the marshmallow on top in 18 minutes.
This very challenge has been studied with numerous groups throughout the world. Interestingly enough it has been found that most teams spend time orienting themselves to the task, a little time planning, a majority of the time building and then at the last minute stick the marshmallow on top. Then, of course, they step back, cringe and most say uh-oh!
Who is the best at this challenge? Kindergartners. Yes, 5-6 year old kids. Why? Because they spend more time prototyping. They start with the marshmallow and keep modifying their idea until the end. Business people, on the other hand, spend more time orienting themselves and settling on the one way to tackle the challenge.
So why challenge the Jenco staff to such a challenge? There is a method to our madness, I promise. First off, it is a simple team building activity that brings everyone together and allows them to use the same language throughout the activity. It forces teams to coordinate quickly and it displays very deep lessons about the nature of collaboration.
Also, there is a hidden lesson within the challenge. The marshmallow is the metaphor for hidden assumptions within a project. The assumption in this project is that the marshmallow is light and can easily be supported with spaghetti sticks. However, when you actually try to build the structure, the marshmallow suddenly seems quite heavy. The lesson in the challenge is that we need to identify all of the assumptions in our projects. Who is the real customer? What is the cost? What is the duration? Also, this challenge teaches us to test early and often – this is the mechanism that leads to effective innovation.
In the end it was interesting to observe how the teams decided to run with the challenge. I also found it interesting that the wining team consisted of two prefab guys, our techy and our warehouse manager.
Interested in learning more? Check out this 7 minute Ted Talks video.