Starting with the Marshmallow: The Key to Successful Teamwork

Here’s a challenge for you: find 20 sticks of spaghetti, 1 metre of tape, 1 metre of string and a marshmallow, and put them all together to make the tallest free-standing structure you can in 18 minutes. Sound interesting? Well, if you do – and you’re successful – you’ll have beaten a puzzle which has been baffling business leaders ever since it was invented.

Even though it sounds like something you’d be asked to do during class fun time back in secondary school, the Marshmallow Challenge is actually a very serious – and revealing – team-building exercise. What may (or may not) be surprising is that some of the best performers are none other than (drumroll please!)…nursery school children. They seem to have this challenge down, beating the likes of business school graduates, lawyers, and even CEOs. Independently, only architects and engineers best them (although, for the sake of every building on the planet, we’re very glad of this result).

So why do children do so well at this challenge? The most likely throwaway answer would be ‘well, they’re just more imaginative and creative than us old fogies’. But research by Peter Skillman, one of the proponents of the Marshmallow Challenge, has identified a key reason for this apparent anomaly. Most teams, he observed, begin the challenge by jockeying for power and leadership, trying to organise some sort of hierarchy within the group. But by first prioritising ‘who makes the orders round here’, they delay pivotal team-working and ideas-sharing time. Instead, children don’t waste time playing politics, and get stuck in with challenge straight away – saving valuable time.

Skillman also noticed that most adult groups tend to follow a standard plan of action. Once they’ve wrestled for leadership, they concentrate on finding the single best plan for a stable structure, execute it to the letter, and then stick the marshmallow on top at the very last moment. They forget that the Marshmallow Challenge is fundamentally about the marshmallow, ignoring it until right at the very end. Instead, they see it as the ‘Spaghetti Challenge’ and get carried away trying to build the tallest spaghetti tower they can.

But if their structure can’t support the marshmallow, it won’t cut the mustard. The problem is, this won’t be revealed until it’s too late – most often when someone suddenly remembers the marshmallow at the end and hurriedly sticks it on top. And hey presto: the weight of the marshmallow brings their rickety structure crashing down.

And here, once again, children get ahead of the game. They start with the marshmallow, and explore different techniques and tactics throughout the challenge. This gives them a distinct advantage: the pesky sweet treat can’t take them by surprise. There’s no ‘I’ in team after all, and instead of negotiating a leader-follower hierarchy and sticking to a rigid concept, they invest their time into working together to share ideas and creativity and prototype various spaghetti structures until they find a credible solution. They start with the problem, rather than the pecking order.

It goes without saying that teamwork is fundamentally about collaboration. Rolling sleeves up and getting stuck in right away allows more time for people to get their heads together for increased iteration and problem-solving. Collaboration implies equality – that everyone on the team is on an equal footing. And success depends on spending more time combatting the problem, rather than combatting each other.

So perhaps starting with the marshmallow is the best teamwork lesson we can learn. Immediately focusing on the challenge, seeing the wood for the trees and spending more time trialling different strategies could be the key to better teamwork – rather than wasting time argy-bargy-ing about who gets to be CEO of Spaghetti Inc!


When team members just can’t quite get along, communication and collaboration can become more of a hindrance than an advantage. PRINT® can help teams to engage and connect by providing insight into the Unconscious Motivators and preferred working and communication styles of each team member – leading to enhanced productivity and results.


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