Sustainable Pace

September 25th, 2010

Marshmallow Challenge

Yesterday I organized a Marshmallow Challenge, a team exercise that reveals some interesting lessons on collaboration.

The task is simple: in eighteen minutes, teams must build the tallest free-standing structure out of 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow. The marshmallow needs to be on top.
I got the idea from Peter Stevens, who posted it on his new blog, Scrum4Kids.

The challenge I hosted had three teams consisting of three people each. The results were similar to what Tom Wujec described in his talk: The teams mostly followed a single plan, and tried to build a standing structure without a major redesign. Here's a draft one team produced.

Sustainable Pace

The collaboration seemed fluent, productive and focussed. The teams were surprised how fast time was passing. One team was collaborating very effectively and started with a small structure. However, they were too ambitious when trying to extend the structure close to the end, and the structure collapsed, however the team was able to save parts of the prototype. Learning that prototyping matters is one goal of the marshmallow challenge.

Sustainable Pace

Another team reported afterwards that they could have had better communication in the design phase, which led them to not fully questioning the approach they followed. They built long spaghetti components, and assembled them too late. In the end, this team didn't produce a standing structure, it collapsed seconds before time ran out. This is another lesson the challenge tries to communicate: skills alone are not enough, you need to combine them with facilitation skills in order to succeed.

Sustainable Pace

I really like how the challenge compresses the experience of project work, which usually lasts months, to a mere 18 minutes. I think that it takes the whole complexity out of the process and allows you to experience cause and effect very clearly. I also like the metaphor: a marshmallow feels light and fluffy, but when put on a spaghetti structure, it has a strong impact on the stability. Similar to misconceptions in a real project which make reaching a project goal harder, if not impossible, unless tackled at early stages.

After the challenge we had a short retrospective meeting, discussed parallels to real life projects, and tried to identify their possible marshmallows. I consider the challenge a success, as the marshmallow metaphor has reached the people. And besides providing a shared experience to enhance team building and learning the lessons mentioned above, people enjoyed themselves and had fun. :-)

Although I tried to be prepared as good as possible (I delivered the ingredients in envelopes with printed instructions), there are things I could have done better. I failed to communicate clearer that I prepared a timer to be projected with a beamer, which resulted in people starting to plan before the session started. Another major flaw was providing transparent tape, which made it harder for the teams to assemble their structures. On the other hand, I put too much focus on details, like providing a soundtrack with songs that had the word "Marshmallow" in the title, exactly timed to 18 minutes.

Wrapping it all up, to me the challenge is a true example of art. Wikipedia defines art as

the product or process of deliberately arranging symbolic elements in a way that influences and affects the senses, emotions, and/or intellect.
I deeply strive to unite work and art. My understanding is that they are one and the same thing, which got seperated over the millenniae. I'm a supporter of holism, and enjoy creating a workplace that allows people to have meaningful, fulfilling experiences.

What do you think about team exercises like this one? Have you ever participated in or run a marshmallow challenge or a similar event? How do you see the relation of work and art? Let me know, I'll be glad to hear your opinions.