The Marshmallow Challenge

spaghetti, marshmallow, string, tape, and a rulerA couple years ago when I worked at another college, I helped organize a staff retreat, and as a team-building exercise, we ran the Marshmallow Challenge. Being a somewhat new leader to a new team at my current college, I thought it would be fun to run the challenge during one of our team meetings. There are only four of us on our team, so I folded up two pieces of paper with the number “1” on them and two pieces of paper with the number “2” on them. I put them in a bowl and passed them around the room. Carly and I ended up as “1”s and Daryl and Michael ended up on the “2” team. Michael had done the challenge before and since I had the gist of it, I thought it would work out well. We only had 18 minutes to complete the challenge. I passed out the tools and pushed the timer and said, “Go.”

Because Michael had done the challenge before, he instantly built what he knew to be a successful tower. Daryl leaned back, played on his iPhone and supervised. I rolled my eyes. Why wasn’t he participating? This was a team effort? Why was he letting Michael do all the work? After about 8 minutes, Michael propped up their structure, and Daryl said, “We’re done.”

Because I had facilitated the challenge previously, I thought I knew the secret to success. I told Carly, “We need to put the marshmallow on top and build from the top down.” Carly shook her head in agreement and started building with me. I layed the structure on its side, telling Carly how it was done. With five minutes to go, we tried to stand the structure up, but it wouldn’t stand. After immense taping and string winding effort, the timer wound down, and our structure toppled over. We’d failed miserably. Michael and Daryl gloated deservedly and Carly took the loss graciously. I was pretty bummed.

It wasn’t until later in the day when I was at home by myself when I could reflect on everything went down during the challenge. I realized it had been quite the valuable lesson. I looked at how Michael and Daryl interacted, and instead of jumping on Daryl for not acting, I realized that Daryl had it right. Why should he mess with the expert who already knew how to get it done? Daryl stayed out of Michaels way, and, while not being totally disengaged, he just let Michael get the job done. And Mike got it done. Then I thought about Carly. With our team, I thought I knew it all, told Carly how to do it, and stifled her creativity. Instead of stating that I knew the right way, I should have asked Carly how she thought it should be done. I was pretty mortified to say the least. It wasn’t the best show of leadership.

I came into work this morning and apologized to Carly and shared my new insights with the team. They were pretty much aware of the dynamics already. They are smart like that, my team. Carly mentioned it was kind of hard to go against me when I came in and said I knew how it was done. She was right. And with that I took to heart the lesson and learning acquired from the Marshmallow Challenge and the knowledge that I truly work with a really great team. I’m lucky we can do things like this without them killing me. 🙂

If you get the chance, I suggest you try it yourself. You can get all the instructions and documentation here: The Marshmallow Challenge.


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