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Team Building: What a Marshmallow Reveals About Collaboration

A simple design exercise can teach you about incentives, b-school graduates, and the high value of an administrative assistant.
COLLABORATORS Tom Wujec, Peter Skillman
Teamwork exercise: building a marshmallow tower
photo by John Morgan

You won’t believe it till you watch it. But there’s this video on TED.com called “Build a tower, build a team,” and it’s not nearly as gimmicky as it sounds.

The men behind it are Peter Skillman and Tom Wujec. Skillman is former VP of design at Palm, now a VP of design at Nokia. Wujec is a Fellow at Autodesk, the legendary makers of AutoCAD design software. He’s also the author of Five-Star Mind: Games and Puzzles to Stimulate Your Creativity and Imagination.

In the video, Wujec explains a concept Skillman introduced to the folks at TED: constructing “a marshmallow tower” as a team-building exercise. Here’s how it works: Teams of four have 18 minutes to create the tallest possible freestanding structure using four components: 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string and one marshmallow. And the marshmallow has to be on the top.

“There’s something about this exercise that reveals very deep lessons about the nature of collaboration,” says Wujec in the video. Having performed the exercise with more than 70 groups – including groups at Fortune 50 companies – Wujec has reached a few conclusions:

1. Recent business school graduates perform poorly. “They lie, they would cheat, they get distracted, and they produce really lame structures,” he says. The average tower by all participants in the exercise is 20 inches; the average tower by b-school grads is only 10 inches.

2. Recent graduates of kindergarten perform well. The average tower by kindergarten graduates measures 26 inches. “Not only do they produce the tallest structures but the most interesting structures of them all,” he reports. Why is that? “[Skillman] likes to say that none of the kids spends any time trying to be CEO of Spaghetti, Inc.” says Wujec. In an exercise with an 18-minute limit, such jockeying for positions is wasted time.

B-school graduates tend to wait until the end of the 18 minutes to add the marshmallow to the top of their structures. When the structures collapse, the b-school teams enter something like a crisis mode. The kindergarten grads, by contrast, tend to incorporate the marshmallow into their designs early on, averting last-second crises.

Other fascinating results: CEO quartets design towers that measure 21 inches on average. But when you add an executive admin to the CEO teams, their towers shoot up to an average of 30 inches. “[The executive admins] have special skills of facilitation,” says Wujec. “They manage the process.”

Perhaps the most dramatic result came on a day when Wujec – performing the experiment with teams of design students – decided to offer a $10,000 incentive to the group building the tallest structure. Despite the hefty prize, not one of the 10 teams participating was able to produce a standing structure. “If anyone had built even a one-inch structure, they would’ve taken the prize,” he says.

Four months later, he performed the exercise with the same students, again offering the incentive. This time, nine of the teams produced freestanding structures, six of which exceeded the 20-inch average. The lessons: Practice makes perfect, and incentives can inhibit performance if they bring nerves into the equation.

THE PLUS

Tom Wujec is a TED titan. If you found his marshmallow challenge talk intriguing, you’ll love his demo of a 13th-century astrolabe. What’s that? Prior to the invention of watches and clocks, people in ancient wherever used astrolabes to gaze at the sky and answer the simple question: What time is it? But that was just one of the astrolabe’s many features, and Wujec – who calls the astrolabe “the world’s first popular computer” – provides a fascinating reminder that new technology is not always better technology. This is must-watch for devotees of vinyl records and fixed-gear bikes.

As for the marshmallow challenge blog, we especially recommend the photo archive, where you can find visuals of several groups Wujec refers to, including this table-turning demonstration from a 2010 challenge conducted in Las Vegas.

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