The Marshmallow Challenge’s Implications for Your Company

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Have you heard of the Marshmallow Tower Challenge? It was devised by Peter Skillman and Tom Wujec, and has been presented as talk on (see “Build a Tower, Build a Team”). This challenge has been presented to many groups; what’s important for us, as company leaders, is to understand how different groups of players do and what the implications say for the level of executive team collaboration.

Daniel Coyle, in The Culture Code, describes the challenge as follows;

A 4-person group is asked to build the tallest possible structure using the following items:

  • 20 pieces of uncooked spaghetti
  • One yard of transparent tape
  • One yard of string
  • One standard-size marshmallow.

The contest has one rule: The marshmallow had to end up on top.

A large variety of groups have taken the challenge, including CEOs, lawyers, business school students and kindergarteners.  Who did best? In dozens of trials, the kindergarteners built structures that averaged 26 inches high; the towers built by business school students, averaged less than 10 inches. Everyone else was in-between.  CEOs averaged 22 inches and teams of lawyers 15 inches.

The groups took different approaches. For instance, the business students got right to work; talking and thinking strategically, tossing out ideas, generating option, etc. They arrived at a strategy, divided up the tasks and started building. In contrast, the kindergarteners didn’t analyze, strategize, or hone ideas. They stood very close to one another and with little talking and unorganized interactions, they grabbed material from one another and started building. They focused on “trying a bunch of stuff together”.

The authors concluded that it’s not the skills level of the parties that matter, as much as the interaction. “The business school students appear to be collaborating, but in fact they are engaged in… ‘status management’. They are figuring out where they fit in the larger picture: Who is in charge? Is it okay to criticize someone’s ideas? What are the rules here? Interactions appear smooth, but their underlying behavior is riddled within efficiency, hesitation, and subtle competition. Instead of focusing on the task, they are navigating their uncertainty about one another…. (In contrast,) the kindergarteners are not competing for status. They stand shoulder to shoulder and work energetically together. They move quickly spotting problems and offering help. They experiment, take risks, and notice outcomes, which guide them towards effective solutions.”

What’s this mean for you? Business students and people like them are likely to be hired by your company, especially in executive positions. They are the role models and implementers for your corporate culture and strategy among their peers and people who report to them. Are they truly forging collaborative teamwork focused on solving the key business challenges that need to be resolved positively in order to achieve the company’s strategy, mission and vision?

What are you doing to improve their “soft-skills or communications, collaboration and teamwork? One solution might be Vistage Inside which was created to meet this need. It has a flexible structure of group development programs, workshops with some of the 1400 expert-speakers, and executive coaching. Also available is access to the 22,000 other Vistage members and an extensive, education opportunities of whitepapers, webinars, etc

Is it time to increase your executive team’s strategic effectiveness and cultural collaboration? Contact Jerry, or 646-290-7664.