Stephen Hawking once said: The greatest enemy of knowledge is not ignorance; it is the illusion of knowledge. Illusion of knowledge? Here is a great example of design collaboration using the Marshmallow Challenge from Ted videos. Even Stephen Hawking would be intrigued about this creative design experiment.
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Do you watch Ted videos? We are big fans and rarely do we watch one that doesn’t capture our attention. Or learn a great deal from them. Learning is an interest of ours, as is innovation, design, and team collaboration. So the video topic we will discuss with you today, struck an immediate chord.
The video was done by Tom Wujec and you can watch it here The Marshmallow Challenge. It is only 7 minutes or so. We recommend you read this post first and then watch the video. For more details we recommend you check out www.marshmallow.com.
The idea of the design challenge is pretty simple. Teams of four must build the tallest free standing structure that will support the marshmallow on top of the structure. The assets the team has to work with include 20 sticks of standard size spaghetti, one yard of masking tape, one yard of string and, of course, the marshmallow. Oh, and the time constraint on the challenge is 18 minutes. Sounds pretty simple, doesn’t it? Actually it is difficult. The biggest challenge? The short time constraint forces very rapid collaboration among the team members.
Most of the teams begin by discussing the problem and approach. They discuss conceptual design ideas, and they jockey for power. They plan, organize, sketch ideas and eventually lay out the spaghetti. As you might guess most of the time is spent assembling the spaghetti into a structure. Finally at the very end they place the marshmallow on top. Then they then stand back for the TA-DA moment. Doesn’t last long, as the usual result is for the TA-DA to turn into UH-OH as the weight of the marshmallow causes the structures to collapse.
Related post: Generating Ideas by Convergent Thinking
Why conduct this design challenge?
In this exercise the marshmallow represents the hidden assumptions. The learning objective? Help team members identify the marshmallow in their projects at their work locations. Other objectives include learning about a team’s shared experience, common language, facilitation, and design prototyping.
Creative design … the results
Tom Wujec, the Ted presenter, has run this challenge 70+ times with various groups. The results are very surprising, to me for sure. Let’s look at how different teams performed. The average is around 20 inches. Business school students about half of that, lawyers a little better, CEOs a little better than average, and amazingly, kindergarteners, who did better than most adult teams. The best teams? Architects and engineers, what I would have expected.
And let’s discuss the results. First the business school students. They are trained to find the single best plan and then execute on it. The results reflect their approach.
And the children, what is it about their results? They have the advantage of not being too competitive in the group, ie no jockeying for power. What they did differently was to start with the marshmallow and build successive prototypes. So they have multiple attempts to fix and learn as they go, on what works and what doesn’t. Designers recognize this type of collaboration as the essence of the iterative process.
The CEOs? The interesting thing about this group is that when an executive admin is added on the team, they got significantly better. Why you may ask? Because they add special skills of facilitation. They understand and manage the process.
The challenge has proven to be very effective in teaching the teams about:
Improvements in capacity for generating fresh ideas
Criticality of prototyping
Identifying hidden assumptions
Importance of diverse skills
Our takeaways and recommendations
We certainly believe in the criticality of prototyping, even before watching this Marshmallow challenge. It certainly reinforced our thinking. With these thoughts in mind, we offer these additional takeaways (from the Art of Innovation by Tom Kelly):
Shoot the bad ideas first
Study the things you know won’t work. They will help you understand why they don’t work and give you more alternative options.
Have a bias for action
Move to implementing experimentation with your best ideas as soon as possible. The mere process of actualizing will create more ideas and thoughts on solutions.
Use lots of media
Try as many types of media as possible to explore your prototype options. Examples include drawings, graphics, foam … any means to learn quickly.
Create short feedback loops. Don’t go long without experimenting and testing your ideas.
Expect your design to change
Rarely does your first prototype become your final design.
What do you think? Like to give the exercise a try? If so, you can find the details on how to run the exercise at www.marshmallow.com. Definitely something we will incorporate in our collaboration and creativity workshops.
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Mike Schoultz is the founder of Digital Spark Marketing, a digital marketing and customer service agency. With 40 years of business experience, he blogs on topics that relate to improving the performance of your business. Find them on G+, Twitter, and LinkedIn.
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