Marshmallow Challenge and Teamwork

Some years ago, Peter Skillman introduced a design competition – “the Marshmallow Challenge”. The idea is quite simple. Teams of four have to build the largest possible free-standing structure with 20 spaghetti, about 1 m of tape and about 1 m of thread, and a marshmallow within a certain time. The marshmallow must be at the top. Although it seems really easy, it is really hard because the participants have to work together very quickly. Tom Wujec has turned this into a design workshop that has been a huge success. Workshops held worldwide with students, developers, architects, engineers and even technical and commercial executives from the world’s leading companies.

Normally, most people start by orienting themselves about the task. They talk about it, they think about what it will look like, they scramble for power and only then do you invest some time in planning and organization. You sketch and lay out spaghetti. You spend a lot of your time assembling ever-growing structures – and finally, just before you run out of time, someone takes the marshmallow and gently puts it on top. Everyone takes a step back and “ta-da” admires your work. But what almost always happens is that the “ta-da” becomes a “uh-oh” because the weight of the (mostly crooked) marshmallow causes the tower to collapse. There are people now who have much more “uh-oh moments” than others. Among the worst groups are fresh business graduates. They lie, they cheat, they are confused and produce really poor structures. But of course there are also teams that have much more “ta-da structures” than others – and among the best are fresh graduates of kindergarten. As Peter Skillman pointed out, they not only produce the highest towers, but also the most interesting structures of all. The question remains: why? Peter Skillman noted that none of the children invests time in being the boss of the new “Spaghetti GmbH”. They don’t invest time in power struggles. But there is another reason. And that’s because business administration students were trained to find the right plan – and then implement it. And when they then put the marshmallow on top, collapse and crisis follow, and there is no more time for an alternative.

Kindergarten children start differently. They use the marshmallow to build prototypes – successful ones and others – always with the marshmallow at the top, so that they have several opportunities to repair dilapidated prototypes. An iterative process. With every attempt, the children get immediate feedback on what works and what doesn’t.

What do differently composed teams achieve?

The average for most teams is about 50 cm, business students make half of it. Lawyers somewhat more, but not much. Kindergarten children are better than adults. And who is the most successful? First place went to architects and engineers – fortunately. The highest towers in this group after 18 minutes are approx. 1 m high. Teams of four from managers are slightly above average. The exciting thing about this is that if you add a managing director to such a team, they become significantly better. Why is that so? Because these people have special process support skills. You lead the process, you understand it. And the team that regulates and pays attention to the work improves the performance considerably.

And another effect can be seen from Tom Wujec’s workshops, if you repeat the competition with the same people. Once the teams have understood the advantage of “prototyping”, they become significantly better and the first worst teams often end up among the best.

Why do different people deal with the Marshmallow Challenge?

The reason is that teamwork affects everyone and design is a “contact sport”. It demands that we focus on the task at hand – that we focus our thinking, our senses and our actions on the challenge ahead – and every product, every team task has a marshmallow to find out about and put on top.


Peter Skillman, Tom Wujec – Ted 2010 Talk 

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