Tanveer Naseer

Leadership Coach, Speaker, and Writer

What The Marshmallow Challenge Can Teach Us About Fostering Team Success

Imagine walking into work one day and your boss decides to divide you into teams of four with the following challenge – to build the largest structure you can using 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string and one marshmallow, which has to be placed at the top of the structure. It’s an unusual assignment, to be sure, but it’s also the basis of a sociological experiment on teamwork called “The Marshmallow Challenge”.

In his TED talk “Build a tower, build a team”, Tom Wujec shares his findings from performing this challenge with a variety of different groups – recent business school graduates, lawyers, engineers, CEOs, and even kindergarten students. As you’ll see, his observations about how the various groups approached the challenge gave rise to some surprising, and at times humorous, results:

While Wujec shares some interesting points on the nature of how we collaborate and the process of design, there are some additional lessons we can learn from this challenge on how leaders can guide their teams to a successful outcome:

1. Foster a culture where assumptions are challenged
As seen in this TED talk, one of the groups which excelled at performing this challenge was kindergarten children. The reason why kindergarteners performed better than most adults is because they are more open to ideas and suggestions.

If you have kids, you probably remember how one of the most common words they used when they were little was “why”. Of course, the reason children ask “why” so much is because it’s their way of understanding the world around them. Unfortunately, as we get older, we lose that inquisitiveness in large part because we begin to rely more on our assumptions to inform us of the realities of any particular situation.

As a leader, it’s important that you create a culture where employees feel free to challenge assumptions, whether they are their own or yours, without fear of reprisals or finger-pointing. As seen in the results of this study, such an environment and attitude is key to encouraging the kind of innovative thinking which not only leads to developing ideas, but to creating tangible results.

2. Provide real-time feedback instead of waiting until the project’s completed
As Wujec points out in his discussion of why the kindergarten children fared better than the business school graduates, by using the iterative process – of testing and reviewing outcomes to improve and refine their design – the children got real-time feedback about what design elements worked in providing their structure with greater height and which elements gave their structure more stability.

By having this immediate feedback – as opposed to finding out afterwards from the exercise organizers what they could have done to improve their structure – the children were able to create some of the tallest structures amongst the various participants in this challenge.

Although leaders might feel like they have too much on their plate to deal with, this finding reinforces not only the importance of regular feedback to inform your employees of their strengths and the direction their efforts should be focused at, but also of how critical the timeliness of giving feedback is to their ability to be successful in their shared efforts.

3. Focus on encouraging learning opportunities instead of simply searching for the best answer
Another key point that arises from the children’s use of the iterative process is the fact that, unlike the business school graduates, the kindergarteners were not simply looking for the best answer to the challenge. Instead, they used their time to learn about what works in building a structure; of how to reinforce beams and provide base support so that when the marshmallow was placed on top, their structure wouldn’t fall.

Obviously, the children had no prior knowledge of this, which is why they spent most of their time learning and understanding the conditions of the experiment to help them devise a suitable solution.

Similarly, if we look at the most successful companies in today’s economy and competitive global market, we can see a similar approach in action. Namely, that these companies are not focused solely on figuring out what the next big thing will be and how to capitalize on it. Rather, they are interested in looking for those unique opportunities that will allow their organization and employees to learn and grow; to discover some area of their field that is untapped, or how they can build on existing platforms to improve them or offer something unique.

By focusing less on finding the best answer and more on opportunities to learn something new, leaders can ensure an attitude of complacency doesn’t set in amongst their employees as their drive is not to ensure the adherence to best practices, but on how to address and adapt to external changes in order to remain competitive and relevant.

4. Communicate a shared and meaningful purpose to your team
One of the more interesting observations Wujec shared during his TED talk was how, unlike most of the adult teams, the kindergarten children didn’t spend the first portion of their project time jostling to figure out who would be the “CEO of Spaghetti Inc”.

Of course, that’s not to say that children are not attracted to creating some form of a social pecking order, which can mirror the growing layers of stratification which naturally occurs as organizations grow and evolve. The reason why this wasn’t the focus of the children during this experiment was because their attention was directed instead on completing the challenge before them. And the fact that they were all committed to achieving the same goal meant that there was less interest in deciding who would be in charge as they were focused on figuring out which ideas and experiences would help them succeed in building the tallest structure.

This is why one of the common themes I write about here on my blog is the importance of leaders communicating a shared purpose to their employees, one which provides a sense of meaning in what they do outside of their sphere of influence or control. Under such conditions, people are less inclined to get caught up in turf wars because they don’t perceive the situation as an ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ scenario.

Instead, there’s a clear understanding of a common purpose which allows employees to appreciate how their efforts – and consequently, their ability to be successful – are inter-dependent. From this vantage point, your team will be more willing to listen and observe what contributions others can offer in order to understand the unique strengths and talents their colleagues can bring to the team.

Of course, such thinking is dependent on the environment and conditions those in charge provide, where they are not so much interested in adhering to titles and roles as they are with doing whatever is in their capacity to help those they lead achieve success.

5. Clarify expectations but allow employees to define which route to take
One of the common axioms of leadership is that leaders should model the behaviour they’d like to see in others. The problem many leaders run into, though, is when they confuse modelling behaviour with telling those they lead how they should do their jobs.

If we look at the parameters of this challenge, we see that the only thing the participants were told was what the end goal was and of what resources they had available to accomplish the task. No where in the rules of the challenge are the participants told how to approach the puzzle. Indeed, the very goal of the challenge is to see how different groups go about creating the winning design.

Looking at the variety of structures made for this challenge, it’s clear that although there’s only one objective, there are many different approaches which can be taken to reach it, with some being better or more creative than others.

In order to tap into that vein of creativity and innovation that exists in your workforce, leaders need to remember that what their employees need is for them to clarify their expectations, of what they want their team to achieve, and leave it to your organization’s culture and values to guide your employees regarding the best route to take to achieve that goal.

At the end of his talk, Wujec concludes that the value of performing the Marshmallow Challenge stems from the exercise’s ability to create “a shared experience, a common language, (and) a common stance to build the right prototype”.

From the vantage point of leadership, we can see that this exercise also provides some valuable lessons for today’s leaders on how to guide and develop their employees, as well as what measures they need to put into place to ensure they’re successful in their collective efforts to reach their shared goals.

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  1. On November 15th, 2011 at 4:30 PM Kudos Web Design said:

    We did a similar thing in the office today. We made a Christmas tree out of Mountain Dew bottles, made a star our of coffee stirring sticks (which I painted with my red glitter nail polish) and hung some wrapper decorations on the tree. It's pretty awesome to be honest and it was great for team building!

  2. On November 16th, 2011 at 10:00 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Sounds like a lot of fun and another good example of how to foster team building and a sense of commonality between employees. Thanks for sharing.

  3. On November 16th, 2011 at 4:18 AM Jeanie said:

    I like the idea of immediate feedback, cause I know from my own experience that this can be very useful. And it can also give an opportunity to keep everything under control and not to miss any detail.

  4. On November 16th, 2011 at 10:11 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Absolutely. As I shared in my piece, Are You Following These 3 Rules For Giving Effective Feedback?, one of the goals in giving others feedback is to inform them of the direction they should be headed. Waiting until your team completes their efforts to tell them they've gone off-course not only results in a waste of time and resources, but it also disengages your team who felt their contributions were going to help their organization, as opposed to simply being an exercise in futility.

    Again, as I wrote above, it's easy to fall for the excuse that there's little time in the day to talk with your employees. But this is one of the most important tasks a leader can do to ensure their team is successful in their efforts.

    Thanks Jeanie for sharing your thoughts on this piece.

  5. On November 16th, 2011 at 10:04 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    If anything, it's yet another reminder that the ability to be creative exists in all of us; the problem is that education and life experiences have dulled our spark. Of course, that doesn't mean it can't be re-ignited which these kinds of challenges help to do.

  6. On November 19th, 2011 at 5:40 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Khleo; it does sound like a fun day at work, in large part because everyone is on the same page and committed to working together to succeed as a team. Real-time feedback is critical to the final outcome because, as this challenge shows, it informs us of where we are in relation to what we want to accomplish. Waiting until we're done leaves us with little opportunity to make adjustments to ensure we actually achieve the goal we set out to reach.

    Thanks Khleo for sharing your thoughts on this piece.

  7. On November 19th, 2011 at 5:41 PM Tanveer Naseer said:

    True, though unfortunately that lack of communication oftens causes the various team members to forget the reason why each of them is there and how they can benefit from the input provided by one another.

  8. On November 19th, 2011 at 6:34 PM Dontono said:

    It's amazing that kids did better than most adults, but I guess we as adults are very closed minded in comparison. I never worked in an environment where this type of experiment would be successful, as far as I can tell, but you never know. There days most companies just want you to "get busy", so playing a game would be nonsense. Too bad, huh? This is how we learn!

  9. On November 21st, 2011 at 3:16 AM egorio said:

    That's so true about real-time feedback! People in the team should constantly communicate with each other. Otherwise what's the point of team working???

  10. On November 30th, 2011 at 11:17 AM Yasir said:

    Hi Tanveer, I really find this post interesting and very educational.

    One of the things that struck me from your post is the importance of timely feedback. As a business owner, it is important to give feedback from time to time so that the people you're working with can know early what could be improved, what extra steps are needed for a project, etc. Many people seem to forget this, unfortunately.

  11. On December 1st, 2011 at 11:08 AM Tanveer Naseer said:

    Thanks Yasir; I'm glad you enjoyed this piece.

    And you're right that employees should be given feedback that is timely and helpful, instead of after the process or project is completed. After all, what leaders should strive for the most is to ensure their team is successful in their efforts. Providing them with feedback to help them stay on track is a sure way to facilitate that outcome.

    Thanks again, Yasir, for sharing your thoughts on this piece.

  12. On January 14th, 2015 at 10:04 AM Lisa said:

    Great post, very inspiring. Failure is usually the biggest challenge for every entrepreneur. But as long as you are open to constructive criticism, which brings out the best in you.. its a stepping stone to success.

  13. On December 1st, 2016 at 9:57 AM Patty Gilmore said:

    I sometimes get push back from "millennials" , who don't seem to cope well with face to face communication when it comes to directive feedback. I have been told I "hurt feelings", which does not come from them, but rather the supervisor they went and told. I struggle with finding a way to provide this feedback while still holding team members accountable.

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