Build a tower, build a team | Tom Wujec | Summary and Q&A

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April 22, 2010
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TED
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Build a tower, build a team | Tom Wujec

TL;DR

The Marshmallow Challenge is an exercise that reveals the importance of collaboration and iteration in design, with kindergartners outperforming business students because they prioritize prototyping over planning.

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Questions & Answers

Q: Why do kindergartners perform better in the Marshmallow Challenge compared to business students?

Kindergartners perform better in the Marshmallow Challenge because they prioritize prototyping and adapt their designs based on feedback, while business students focus on planning and often face a crisis when they run out of time.

Q: What is the role of facilitation skills in the Marshmallow Challenge?

Facilitation skills, demonstrated by executive admins, significantly improve team performance in the Marshmallow Challenge. They manage the process and understand how to effectively coordinate team efforts.

Q: How do specialized skills contribute to success in the Marshmallow Challenge?

Specialized skills, such as those possessed by architects and engineers, enhance team performance in the Marshmallow Challenge. They understand geometric patterns and the use of triangles to build structurally stable designs.

Q: How does the introduction of high stakes impact the Marshmallow Challenge?

High stakes deter teams from taking risks and lead to a decline in performance in the Marshmallow Challenge. The fear of failure outweighs the willingness to experiment and iterate, resulting in fewer standing structures.

Summary

In this TED Talk, the speaker introduces a design challenge called the marshmallow challenge, where teams have to build the tallest free-standing structure using spaghetti, tape, string, and a marshmallow. The speaker shares the deep lessons about collaboration learned from conducting design workshops with various groups. Kindergartners tend to perform better than most adults because they focus on prototyping and keeping the marshmallow on top throughout the process. Architects and engineers excel due to their understanding of triangles and self-reinforcing geometrical patterns. The presence of an executive admin on the team significantly improves performance because of their facilitation skills. Incentives and high stakes have a strong impact on team performance. The marshmallow challenge helps teams identify hidden assumptions and provides a common language and shared experience for building effective prototypes.

Questions & Answers

Q: What is the marshmallow challenge?

The marshmallow challenge is a design challenge where teams have to build the tallest free-standing structure using spaghetti, tape, string, and a marshmallow.

Q: Why is the marshmallow challenge difficult?

The marshmallow challenge is difficult because it forces people to collaborate quickly, and the weight of the marshmallow often causes structures to buckle and collapse.

Q: How do most people approach the marshmallow challenge?

Most people start by orienting themselves to the task, discussing and planning, and then spend the majority of their time assembling the sticks into structures before putting the marshmallow on top.

Q: Why do business school graduates perform poorly in the marshmallow challenge?

Business school graduates often perform poorly because they are trained to find a single right plan and execute on it, which leaves them little time to address any issues that arise when placing the marshmallow on top.

Q: How do kindergartners perform in the marshmallow challenge?

Kindergartners perform better than most adults in the marshmallow challenge. They focus on prototyping and building successive prototypes with the marshmallow on top, allowing them to fix issues along the way and receive instant feedback.

Q: Why do architects and engineers excel in the marshmallow challenge?

Architects and engineers excel in the marshmallow challenge because they understand triangles and self-reinforcing geometrical patterns, which are crucial for building stable structures.

Q: What role does an executive admin play in team performance?

An executive admin significantly improves team performance in the marshmallow challenge due to their specialized skills in facilitation. They manage the process and understand how to optimize team collaboration.

Q: How do high stakes affect team performance in the marshmallow challenge?

High stakes have a strong impact on team performance in the marshmallow challenge. When a $10,000 prize was offered, no team had a standing structure. However, when the challenge was repeated with the same students, who now understood the value of prototyping, they went from being the worst to among the best-performing teams.

Q: What is the value of the marshmallow challenge in real-world project scenarios?

The marshmallow challenge helps teams identify hidden assumptions, provides a common language, and offers a shared experience for building effective prototypes. It can be applied to any project, as every project has its own "marshmallow" - a challenge that requires iterative prototyping.

Q: How does design contribute to success in the marshmallow challenge?

Design is a contact sport, demanding the application of all senses and the best thinking, feeling, and doing. Embracing the challenge and creating prototypes can turn "uh-oh" moments into "ta-da" moments, making a significant difference in success.

Takeaways

The marshmallow challenge teaches valuable lessons about collaboration, prototyping, and the role of incentives in team performance. It emphasizes the importance of understanding hidden assumptions and the power of iterative design. The challenge provides a common language and shared experience for teams to build effective prototypes, ultimately contributing to success in various projects.

Summary & Key Takeaways

  • The Marshmallow Challenge requires teams to build the tallest structure using spaghetti, tape, string, and a marshmallow, highlighting the importance of collaboration in design.

  • Business students often struggle with the challenge because they prioritize planning over prototyping and face a crisis when they run out of time.

  • Kindergartners excel at the challenge because they prioritize prototyping and adapt their designs based on instant feedback.

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