Marshmallow Towers, kids are better than MBAs

What’s a fun way to loosen up a stiff executive audience? It might be the Marshmallow Tower Challenge. I’ve conducted this a half dozen times with executives, students, and consultants. Detailed instructions here.

How does it work?

Teams of four are given sparse materials (dry spaghetti, tape, string) and asked to build the tallest structure they can in 18 minutes that can support a marshmallow on top.

Children do better than MBAs

This is a task that requires experimentation and prototyping. On average, kindergartners do a better job because they prototype. They’re willing to make mistakes and revise their designs. (Un)surprisingly, MBAs spend too much time jockeying for leadership, and planning their vaulted final design. . . only to run out of time, or tragically discover that their design sucks.

Other takeaways:

  • CEO teams did better when an executive assistant was on the team
  • Incentives worsened performance
  • The same teams almost universally did better a few months later

Don’t forget to Debrief

After you go through the exercise (and allow people to wash the marshmallow off their hands), it’s good to prompt the audience with a few questions:

  • What worked and didn’t work?
  • Tell me about the team dynamics?
  • What would you do differently next time?

Afterwards, it’s useful to show the TED Talk (7 minutes) which helps to solidify the lessons learned.

What Workshop exercises do you use?