Build a tower, build a team | Tom Wujec

Build a tower, build a team | Tom Wujec

Several years ago here at TED, Peter Skillman introduced a design challenge called the marshmallow challenge. And the idea’s pretty simple: Teams of four have to build the tallest free-standing structure out of 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string and a marshmallow. The marshmallow has to be on top. And, though it seems really simple, it’s actually pretty hard because it forces people to collaborate very quickly. And so, I thought this was an interesting idea, and I incorporated it into a design workshop. And it was a huge success. And since then, I’ve conducted about 70 design workshops across the world with students and designers and architects, even the CTOs of the Fortune 50, and there’s something about this exercise that reveals very deep lessons about the nature of collaboration, and I’d like to share some of them with you. So, normally, most people begin by orienting themselves to the task. They talk about it, they figure out what it’s going to look like, they jockey for power. Then they spend some time planning, organizing, they sketch and they lay out spaghetti. They spend the majority of their time assembling the sticks into ever-growing structures. And then finally, just as they’re running out of time, someone takes out the marshmallow, and then they gingerly put it on top, and then they stand back, and — ta-da! — they admire their work. But what really happens, most of the time, is that the “ta-da” turns into an “uh-oh,” because the weight of the marshmallow causes the entire structure to buckle and to collapse. So there are a number of people who have a lot more “uh-oh” moments than others, and among the worst are recent graduates of business school. (Laughter) They lie, they cheat, they get distracted and they produce really lame structures. And of course there are teams that have a lot more “ta-da” structures, and among the best are recent graduates of kindergarten. (Laughter) And it’s pretty amazing. As Peter tells us, not only do they produce the tallest structures, but they’re the most interesting structures of them all. So the question you want to ask is: How come? Why? What is it about them? And Peter likes to say that none of the kids spend any time trying to be CEO of Spaghetti, Inc. Right? They don’t spend time jockeying for power. But there’s another reason as well. And the reason is that business students are trained to find the single right plan, right? And then they execute on it. And then what happens is, when they put the marshmallow on the top, they run out of time and what happens? It’s a crisis. Sound familiar? Right. What kindergarteners do differently is that they start with the marshmallow, and they build prototypes, successive prototypes, always keeping the marshmallow on top, so they have multiple times to fix when they build prototypes along the way. Designers recognize this type of collaboration as the essence of the iterative process. And with each version, kids get instant feedback about what works and what doesn’t work. So the capacity to play in prototype is really essential, but let’s look at how different teams perform. So the average for most people is around 20 inches; business schools students, about half of that; lawyers, a little better, but not much better than that, kindergarteners, better than most adults. Who does the very best? Architects and engineers, thankfully. (Laughter) Thirty-nine inches is the tallest structure I’ve seen. And why is it? Because they understand triangles and self-reinforcing geometrical patterns are the key to building stable structures. So CEOs, a little bit better than average, but here’s where it gets interesting. If you put you put an executive admin. on the team, they get significantly better. (Laughter) It’s incredible. You know, you look around, you go, “Oh, that team’s going to win.” You can just tell beforehand. And why is that? Because they have special skills of facilitation. They manage the process, they understand the process. And any team who manages and pays close attention to work will significantly improve the team’s performance. Specialized skills and facilitation skills are the combination that leads to strong success. If you have 10 teams that typically perform, you’ll get maybe six or so that have standing structures. And I tried something interesting. I thought, let’s up the ante, once. So I offered a 10,000 dollar prize of software to the winning team. So what do you think happened to these design students? What was the result? Here’s what happened: Not one team had a standing structure. If anyone had built, say, a one inch structure, they would have taken home the prize. So, isn’t that interesting? That high stakes have a strong impact. We did the exercise again with the same students. What do you think happened then? So now they understand the value of prototyping. So the same team went from being the very worst to being among the very best. They produced the tallest structures in the least amount of time. So there’s deep lessons for us about the nature of incentives and success. So, you might ask: Why would anyone actually spend time writing a marshmallow challenge? And the reason is, I help create digital tools and processes to help teams build cars and video games and visual effects. And what the marshmallow challenge does is it helps them identify the hidden assumptions. Because, frankly, every project has its own marshmallow, doesn’t it? The challenge provides a shared experience, a common language, a common stance to build the right prototype. And so, this is the value of the experience, of this so simple exercise. And those of you who are interested may want to go to It’s a blog that you can look at how to build the marshmallows. There’s step-by-step instructions on this. There are crazy examples from around the world of how people tweak and adjust the system. There’s world records that are on this as well. And the fundamental lesson, I believe, is that design truly 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 to the challenge that we have at hand. And sometimes, a little prototype of this experience is all that it takes to turn us from an “uh-oh” moment to a “ta-da” moment. And that can make a big difference. Thank you very much. (Applause)

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About the Author: Oren Garnes


  1. yea hahah….we were asked to do the same in our cultural training program….
    n I must he is right..we engineers did it well…

  2. Simple team building ideas can work but the facilitation has to be really good and meaningful. Tom's a good speaker, enjoyed this.

  3. Lionardo di ser Pierro da Vinci disait: "De même que la nourriture prise sans appétit est nuisible à la santé du corps ainsi l’étude sans désir est néfaste à celle de l'esprit" et Kong fu Zi lui disait: "Je ne peux rien pour qui ne se pose pas de question"
    C'est marrant de voir comment on redécouvre toujours les mêmes choses.
    Le grand Blaise disait: "Toutes les bonnes maximes sont dans le monde, il ne manque qu'a les appliquer"
    On en revient, donc, au véritable problème!  
    Sommes nous dans la merde parce ce que nous sommes tous des grosses larves spirituelles sans volonté ou sommes nous tous des grosses larves spirituelles sans volonté parce que nous sommes gavé de merde?

  4. I don't see how "collaboration" has anything to do with the one plan vs. iterative approaches.  I think the study would have been a lot more straightforward if the task was done by individuals, and then maybe later that could also be compared with the performance of groups.

    definitely seems like a useful study though.

  5. Have you taken the Marshmallow challenge?
    Lot of learning, specially about the importance of prototyping and identifying the marshmallow of your project.
    The bragging part: We had taken this challenge during our @Harvard Business School Executive Education program on Innovation (Driving Growth through Innovation), and made the structure successfully stand. Though we didn't make the tallest structure, we got a gift for doing the right things during the process.

  6. I don't see how this would help for people in groups. I had to accidentally be in 2 groups per class because I didn't know where to go for one of my free periods (it was changed later on). The first group I letted all 3 people in my group to make this tower. We failed. The second group I worked in. I persuaded them not to help and did mine the same as the last one. I succeeded in my 11th grade chemistry class and had about 27 inches. I know that it gives people a chance to share work. But, few collaborations start collapsing skyscrapers.

  7. Did this in Math class today… My team was horrible but we got 2nd with logic. I guessed 1/5 teams would actually get it to work so we sat there, ate the spaghetti and when time was almost up we just set the marshmallow on the table. It worked because the marshmallow was on the top.

  8. teams should be comprised of like educated people otherwise they just become hiding places for deadwood, incompetence and waste of energy/time… sadly socialist european / canadian governments and now even the us is moving in this direction…let s call it community organizing

  9. "Among the best are recent graduates of… kindergarten!" Love this video & the way this simple exercise is used.

  10. 4:49 shows what happens when people strive too much for results – many will recognise this in their businesses.

  11. 6:15 "La lección fundamental es que el diseño es un deporte de contacto"…esto también aplica muy bien a la importancia de la conformación de equipos para la "construcción" de proyectos de emprendimiento…. EL EMPRENDIMIENTO ES UN DEPORTE DE EQUIPO

    3:05 – "Los diseñadores consideran este tipo de colaboración como la esencia del proceso iterativo"
    4:16 – Cualquier equipo que cuente con un facilitador que gestione y preste mucha atención al trabajo mejora significativamente el rendimiento del equipo
    4:25 – "habilidades especiales y facilitación son la combinación que lleva al éxito"
    5:38 – "la actividad (torre de malvaviscos) ayuda a identificar las suposiciones ocultas"
    5:57 –

  12. I asked the class to do this individually first. Many failed and we had some towers from 10-17" in height. Then I broke them into smaller groups of three and asked them to collaborate about the challenge. The groups built higher towers using the combined wisdom. They also team-built the second generation. It was interesting to note that the collaboration did not cure the fail rate which was about the same as when individuals did it. Collaboration did not achieve a reasonable limit. Teams attempted to build too high and collapses were frequent. Building towers out of spaghetti, tape and string is obviously difficult.

  13. I love this exercise. We did it in one of my MBA classes and I use it in workshops that i do now.

  14. Random people reasoning in group beat individual Harvard bred student in logical task (at the Wason Selection Task), by far, (70% success against 20% success), ee Hugo Mercier & Dan Sperber, 2017, The Enigma of Reason, on this.

  15. I do this with my 7th grade students each year; it is a great challenge, and they end up having to get so creative to solve the problem! A great exercise in teamwork, prototyping, and perseverance.

    TED, can you take these great videos and make short-cuts of them? 7th graders cannot watch all of this video and stay engaged through the boring bits, unfortunately :/

  16. My whole class did this as a challenge and everyone’s right to only use for sticks to hold it up in the rest just build up the marshmallow and it all fell and me and my team we did we made like an Eiffel tower design and we were the only team who had their structure standing

  17. We did this in business class and my group did it in 16 min standing tall on its own. Took picture to prove it.

  18. My partner and I did this during science lessons, and it was very easy. We made a pyramid and it was 40 cm tall with only 18 sticks of spaghetti. We were the only ones to use a square base instead of a triangular base.

  19. Just started doing this with my K-5 computer science classes. We have had a consistent "fail" rate of about 50% of the groups per class do not have a standing tower. For me, it'll be useful to do at the end of the year again too, and see if all the teamwork, collaboration, communication, and prototyping activities during the year, build more skills, and produce better tower results.

  20. I lived this experience myself last Thursday and it's totally true, my team failed because no discussion was there and ideas like mine or others could actually been discussed and enhanced . The other team actually did that and made a tower of 48 centimeters. By the way we are systems engineers

  21. this was done in a job interview i participated in. i told my group to stfu. i grabbed all the noodles and sticked them to the wall. it went from the ground up to the ceiling. i was hired, nobody else was. i quit after 3 years though

  22. Was trying to find video that explains the best about the challenge and this one was the best, just sent them this video

  23. I also experienced the Marshmallow Challenge during a university workshop. Other departments did well in the challenge EXCEPT our department: College of Business department. This video was played after the workshop for processing and I really learned so much from it. Thanks!

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