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What does the Marshmallow Challenge teach us?

Many of us will have been faced with the said ‘Marshmallow Challenge’ exercise… Provided with 20 pieces of spaghetti, a piece of string, sellotape and one marshmallow, you are then told that you have a set amount of time to use these resources and build the tallest, free-standing structure you can which will balance the marshmallow on top. Ready, set…GO!

This exercise is used to teach and develop individuals in the attributes of collaboration, innovation and creativity.  The Marshmallow Challenge reminds us that in order for a project to be a success, we need to identify the assumptions we are making in the project and test these early on and often.  In the Marshmallow Challenge, individuals naturally assume the marshmallows are light and will easily be supported by the spaghetti sticks. But lo and behold, when building and testing a structure, the marshmallows do not end up being so light!

The questions here to consider are – when these groups attempt to complete this challenge, how do their successes vary? Are the results reflective of experience and the stage they are in, in life? This theory was testing in this TED Talk, investigating the following groups:

  • Business School Students
  • Lawyers
  • Kindergarteners
  • Architects & Engineer
  • CEOs
  • CEOs & Executive Admins

The theory was to understand who performed better?  As can be seen from the below chart by Harvard Business Review, the research brought up some very interesting results!

the Marshmallow Challenge results

Ted Talk Marshmallow Challenge

Business School students and Lawyers performed below average and kindergarteners performed 3rd best behind Architects & Engineers and CEOs & Executive Admins.  In this situation, we typically see the students spending time establishing the team hierarchy before one person emerges as a leader.  The next minutes are spent planning the best way to approach the challenge until eventually, the construction takes place.  As time runs out, the marshmallow is placed on top of the well-planned, but not tested structure and it collapses!  In comparison, the kindergarteners get stuck in from the word ‘Go!’ and trial different ways until they find a way that works best! The kindergarteners’ approach is more successful as it matches the intended learning concept of the challenge. It reminds us that we should be testing our assumptions early on and often and demonstrating our breadth of innovation and creativity.

being curious cultivates creativity

So what does this tell us? We are all born with an innate creativity and curiosity! The problem is that as we grow up we unlearn these natural responses. Instead, we believe that we should be more systematic and rational when faced with situations such as this; which as the challenge results show, does not actually work so well! Arguably, however, the research does seem to suggest that there is a possibility to ‘relearn’ your ability to be curious and intuitive as the teams made up of CEOs do perform better than the business school students.  The groups that perform best – mixes of two types of employees, is consistent with many previous studies which find that innovation happens best with a collaboration of mindsets and skills.

We should focus on re-establishing our relationship with our curious and instinctive behaviour through adopting a ‘beginner’s mind’, explained by Harvard Business Review as “putting yourself in situations where you don’t know the answer and don’t have the skills to find it”. This could be learning a new language, an instrument or taking on new responsibilities at work. Another way to adopt this mindset is to diversify your network. You’ll probably find a lot of the people you spend time with have very similar backgrounds to you. Start by branching out at work. Try speaking to an employee in a different team or role. Take up a new social interest which you would not previously have considered and make an effort to network with different people outside of your social circle. Your diversified group will result in you having a more diversified mindset; definitely useful when tackling issues!

adopting a ‘beginners mindset’

beginners-mindset-quotes

Ambiguity and change are an unquestionable growing trend for leaders and one of the best ways we can make sure we are prepared is to put ourselves in situations we are not used to and simply deal with it!  Force ourselves to listen to that curious voice in our head instead of usually brushing it to one side and making the effort to be more instinctive; this could be when your best and most innovative ideas emerge!  The success of projects will come from making sure you test those assumptions you are making and trial different methods!  How would you approach the Marshmallow Challenge? Are you more likely to take a ‘kindergartener route’ now after reading this article?  Let us know your thoughts on rekindling your relationship with curiosity!

To conclude, you can read more on the topic of utilising your creativity and innovation in problem-solving in our blog post – ‘Add some creativity and innovation into your problem-solving!

One Comment

  1. you wrote: one of the best ways we can make sure we are prepared is to put ourselves in situations we are not used to and simply deal with it! Force ourselves to listen to that curious voice in our head instead of usually brushing it to one side and making the effort to be more instinctive; this could be when your best and most innovative ideas emerge! The success of projects will come from making sure you test those assumptions you are making and trial different methods! –

    in this perspective, it is good someone is exploring.
    But more and more, people are hired because they have all skills (long list) which are good for the job. And lacking the skills to go for something and using all methods and creativity for that goal.
    I think autistic way and have lots of friends with this way of thinking. we are experts in ‘ situations we are not used to and simply deal with it! ‘ Just because we don’t recognize situations as the same because the details are again different. When we life our lifes fully we are allways exploring.
    So the autistic people are highly trained in this issue (except the ones who became completly structured lifes)
    But many of us lack the skills who are required on the long/ longer list of expectations. So I want to say this group is example of very innovative way of thinking but.. oft not fit in in a workplace due to lack of one or more expectations which are less important.

    also interesting the architect is even better.
    why? his skills of course. he didn’t learn about marshmallows but has a lot of skills he or she can use for the challenge. So it is also very important to have creative people with al lot of skills which belong to the way of thinking of a person. this skills should be so naturally that in a completly different setting the person intuive use the skills.
    Most of my autistic friends have a skill where they ‘see’ more then what is expected. because the skill is like life for them.

    This 2 subject make my friends excellent in unique solving of cases. allthough several of us because of lack to be allround have big difficulty to become a job to show the possibilies we have.
    Hope more and more good additude to people with special but not all skills.
    I think this is good for the creative specialist people. And also good for economy to use the creativity of the people.

    Hope you enjoy the way I read you’re article and show you my perspective on this.

    My Englisch is foreign language to me, excuse me for words not written right.

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