In advance, prepare one kit containing the following items for each small group: – 20 sticks of spaghetti – 1 metre (3′) of string – 1 metre (3′) of masking tape – 1 x marshmallow
Gather your group and divide them into small teams of approx 4 to 8 people.
Distribute one kit to each small group.
Instruct the groups to use (only) the contents of the kits to build the tallest free-standing structure, and to place the marshmallow on top (highest peak of structure.)
Explain that every group has exactly 20 minutes to complete the task.
Groups are permitted to use as little or all of their resources and break the spaghetti, string and tape as they choose.
The team with the tallest (free-standing) structure supporting the highest marshmallow at the end of the time, wins.
Video Transcript for Marshmallow Challenge Game presented by Mark Collard
In a moment I’m going to set up each of your groups, small groups of four or five people, with limited resources. Everyone will have exactly the same resources and your 20 minutes is to create something with those resources.
The resources you shall each receive include a strip of masking tape that’s roughly a metre long. Protect it, because you’ll want to use it. You’ll also receive about 600 mm of twine, a piece of string.
I’m also going to give each of your groups 20 sticks of thin spaghetti… 20 sticks of thin spaghetti. They are located in corner over here. And finally one new, never-been-eaten, just-been-opened marshmallow.
This is your task, using all of those resources, the collective thinking and the 20 minutes you have to work together, is to combine all of those resources to create not only a self-supporting structure, but most importantly… you may have the tallest structure and still not win because the determinant of success in this exercise, the Marshmallow Challenge game, is the team that places the marshmallow the furthest off the ground shall win.
So that may be the tallest structure, but I have seen many structures that are very tall but the marshmallow is not very high off the ground.
So let me repeat the task because at this point you’re thinking, surely that’s easy, it’s going to be a very interesting 20 minutes.
Each group is going to receive 20 sticks of spaghetti, a metre-length of masking tape, about 600 mm of twine, and one marshmallow. You have a choice, pink or white. They both have about the same performance properties as each other.
You can cut up, change the number of the sticks. You could change the 20 sticks into 40 sticks by cutting them in half. You can cut up the masking tape. You can cut up the twine any way you choose. The only thing you cannot change the composition of is the marshmallow.
After 20 minutes everyone must pull back, stand clear from their structure, and I shall measure from the ground to the top of your marshmallow. The team… there will be eight teams… the one with the distance highest off the ground, their marshmallow shall win.
Note it’s at that 20th minute. There should be no correspondence entered into with the judges that says at the 18th minute we had it but then it fell over. Too bad. It’s at the 20th minute is when it shall be recorded.
And it’s important that it’s free-standing. Just in case you’re concerned about what does that mean, it means nothing is holding it up. It’s not being suspended from a skyhook or leaning against a table. It will have some base to the ground, and you can use nothing to append your tower to the ground.
(Can I use a crack in the ground?)
That crack in the ground, no. There’s nothing about the ground that’s going to assist your tower. Everything about the way the marshmallow is kept off the ground will be related to all the other resources and your thinking.
On paper you think this is pretty simple. I know having seen this done 40, 50 times now it’s not as simple as it sounds.
(What’s the highest that you’ve seen?)
I will share that at the end. It is a very interesting record. Alright, are there any other questions?
(people playing Marshmallow Challenge game)
Just over 4 minutes.
(people playing Marshmallow Challenge game)
Did you use all your resources?
(Little bit of tape left over, just for repairs.)
(people playing Marshmallow Challenge game)
Twenty seconds… Fifteen.
(people finishing up playing Marshmallow Challenge game…)
How To Play Narrative
Like many group initiatives, this Marshmallow Challenge game may appear quite simple, but the process by which a group may accomplish it can be altogether a different matter. If you are looking for a problem-solving exercise that challenges people’s assumptions, this is it.
Start in advance by filling a series of paper bags with the following resources (one kit per group:)
20 sticks of spaghetti
1 metre (3′) of string
1 metre (3′) of masking tape
1 x marshmallow
Gather your group and divide them into small teams of approx 4 to 8 people. Honestly, you could equip every person with their own kit, but the invitation to work with others makes for a richer experience.
Then, distribute one kit to each small group, perhaps concealing the contents of the bags until the last possible minute (this builds suspense, but it’s not essential.)
At this juncture, simply explain to your group their task: using only the contents of the bag, they are to build the tallest free-standing structure, and to place the single marshmallow on top, or on the highest peak of structure.
Explain that every group has exactly 20 minutes to complete the task, and they are permitted to use as little or all of their resources and may break the spaghetti, string and tape how ever they see fit.
Take a look at the many Leadership Tips for some useful operational hints.
At the end of the allotted time, use your tape-measure, and gingerly calculate the height of the marshmallow supported by each creation to identify the winner – whatever that may mean to you and your group.
Practical Leadership Tips
Consider placing all of the items (spaghetti, etc) into brown paper bags, before distribution, to build the element of surprise.
A few things I’ve learned as I have delivered this activity:
Use regular spaghetti – not spaghettini or fettuccine.
Use fresh, regular sized (30x30mm) marshmallows, not the smaller or jumbos-sized versions. It is critical that the marshmallows give your groups the illusion of soft, light and fluffy (because they are not).
Remind your groups that the entire marshmallow must be on top – there is a tendency for some groups to want to break it up into smaller pieces, but this is not cool.
Naturally, ‘free-standing’ means free standing – at the end of the crucial 20th minute, it is necessary for everyone to step back from their creation to allow it to remain upright independently of any other support, eg chair, wall, hand, clothing, etc.
Offer a prize to the ‘winning’ group if you wish. This is certainly not necessary, but it does add to the competitive flavour of the event.
Like most group initiatives, this exercise is ideally suited for reflection at the conclusion of the activity. As a guide, take a look at some of the lessons this exercise may teach, as described in the Reflection Tips tab.
Limited Resources: Vary any one or more of the items in the kit, such as more or fewer spaghetti sticks, tape or string.
Marshmallows Plus: Supply ten or more marshmallows, allowing each group to use marshmallows to form part of their structure. Yet, as in the original challenge, a marshmallow must be positioned on top of the structure.
Food Drop: Take a look at the classic group initiative the Great Egg Drop for a similar limited-resources and food-based exercise.
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Useful Framing Ideas
Introduce yourself as a famous architect, and explain that you are seeking the best way for buildings to be structured with light-weight materials. You plan to divide your group into competing teams of architects, who will be charged with the responsibility of building the tallest free-standing structure that will not only stand up by itself, but more importantly, support a marshmallow at the very peak of its design…
Reflection Tips & Strategies
Coupled with one or more reflection strategies, here are some sample questions you could use to process your group’s experience after playing this popular group initiative:
Was the task harder than you initially thought? Why?
Did you make any assumptions during the exercise?
If you could do this task again, would you do anything differently? What exactly?
What lessons does this challenge present to us?
In many cases, three key lessons may bubble up from a debrief of this exercise:
Children do better than adults, especially business and management graduates – on almost every measure of creativity, kindergarteners create taller and more interesting structures. Why? They are not bound by rules, engineering degrees and assumptions.
Prototyping matters – the reason children do better than adults, and commerce graduates, in particular, is that young people spend more time playing and prototyping. They naturally start with the marshmallow and poke in the sticks. Adults generally spend a lot more time planning, then executing on the plan, with almost no time to fix their structure’s design once they put the marshmallow on top (and then discover the third lesson.)
The marshmallow is a metaphor for the hidden assumptions of a project: Most people assume that marshmallows are light and fluffy and easily supported by the spaghetti sticks. Yet, when a group starts to build their structure, they discover that marshmallows are a lot heavier than they appear. Therefore, the lesson is – we must always identify the assumptions in any task/project – the real needs of our customers, the real cost of a product, etc – and test them early and often. This is the process which leads to effective innovation.
The inspiration for the Marshmallow Challenge game was sourced from Tom Wujec, who created a whole web page dedicated to this team challenge. You are strongly recommended to watch his TEDx Talk in which he describes the surprising results his research has unearthed.