The Marshmallow Challenge

By Scott Westerman

Your assignment: Build the tallest freestanding structure possible with 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string and one marshmallow. You have a team of four. And you have to do this in 18 minutes!

This is Peter Skillman’s Marshmallow Challenge.

Tom Wujec is as a Fellow at Autodesk, “the world’s leader in 2D and 3D technology serving the Design, Engineering and Entertainment industries”. He has incorporated the Challenge into over 70 design workshops with teams of every age & education.

He believes that, “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.”

It’s a fascinating exercise designed to teach us about collaboration and team work.

It turns out that the worst performing team’s are made up of recent graduates from business school. Among the best performers? Recent graduates of kindergarten.

Why do the kids do so much better? Skillman says that none of the kids spend any time jockeying for power. Kids aren’t trained to be CEOs of Spaghetti, Inc. In their world of play, they build successive prototypes, failing fast, laughing and learning along the way.

Business schools teach us to seek the one best solution and then execute. So much time is wasted in discussion that there is little time left to build. Inevitably, the marshmallow is fitted in the final moments and the whole structure collapses.

How often has this happened at your office?

CEOs perform about average, but if you add an administrative assistant to the team, the productivity shoots up. Admins develop special facilitation skills and have a sixth sense that always seems to be the wind beneath their executive bosses’ wings.

Of course the best of the best at this game are architects and engineers. That’s their passion and they learn the geometry and science that is fundamental to the project. But the magic in the exercise for the rest of us is what we can learn together.

The Marshmallow Challenge provides a shared experience, a common language and exposes the hidden assumptions that teams bring to collaboration. It can be great preparation before a team starts a new project or tackles a particularly tough problem.

Wujec concludes that design “is a contact sport. It demands that we bring all of our senses to the task, and that we apply the very best of our thinking, our feeling and our doing.”

That’s also pretty good advice as you prepare to attack each new day.

Have a great week!


Scott Westerman has been a broadcaster, cable television executive and entrepreneur. In 2010 he joined the MSU Alumni Association as Associate Vice President for Alumni Relations & Executive Director. He is a 1978 graduate of Michigan State University. 

This blog post was originally featured on http://www.scottwesterman.com and has been used by the author’s permission.

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