Building a Tower, Building a Team

January 8, 2016.
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Tom Wujec: Building a tower, building a team
The surprising results of the Marshmallow Challenge

Tom Wujec, Designer, author, business visualization pioneer. Professor at Singularity University, Toronto. Fellow at Autodesk, a leading 2D & 3D design software company.

This is a TED presentation on the important topic of team building and team behaviour, and well worth watching for its dynamic and engaging delivery.

TED2010 2.6M views on

If you are not familiar with the Marshmallow Challenge, this is a team exercise originally designed by Peter Skillman, VP of Design at Palm—which produced some rather surprising results and provided interesting insights for team building, project management and creativity.

Using 20 sticks of dry spaghetti, one meter of string, one meter of tape and a marshmallow, teams of 4 people are given 18 minutes to compete to build the tallest standing structure.  This exercise has been repeated with various groups of people numerous times over the years—business students, CEOs, architects and engineers, kindergarten children and others.

So how did the different groups perform? One surprising result was that business school graduates consistently perform poorly, closely followed by CEO groups. Interestingly, when CEOs were joined by their administrative assistants in their groups, they performed much better.

Among the consistently best performers, however, are teams of recent kindergarten ‘graduates’! Not only do they produce the tallest—but also the most interesting structures.

Why is that? According to Tom Wujec, the reason is that business school graduates and executives are taught to seek out the one correct solution to problem. They also tend to spend more time discussing and planning, and sometimes getting caught up in who should lead. Kindergartners on the other hand will just start building, and keep trying and testing multiple iterations until they find a structure that works.

As we might expect, architects and engineer groups built the very tallest structures (thankfully!).

Many companies have now used the Marshmallow Challenge with their teams. Says Tom Wujec: “I believe the marshmallow challenge is among the fastest and most powerful techniques for improving a team’s capacity to generate fresh ideas, build rapport and incorporate prototyping—all of which lie at the heart of effective innovation.”

Some of the insights gained from conducting this experiment with large numbers of people:

You learn by doing; discovering problems you can’t predict in advance.
Work in parallel.
• Being first to market isn’t always the best – learn from others’ mistakes first.
Multiple iterations usually beat commitment to making your first idea work.
Fail fast, fail often.
• All projects have resource constraints; but you don’t get more unless you ask.

Tom Wujec has written several books, the most recent being Imagine Design Create (2011).

160108 T Wujec Imagine Design Create

Trond Varlid

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This article first appeared in the EMC Quest newsletter series.