Management Tactic #57: The Marshmallow Challenge

About a year ago, I watched a TED talk online about something called “The Marshmallow Challenge.” I was fascinated by this deceptively simple teambuilding exercise and the lessons it provided to groups, companies, and leaders.

So today I tried it at my work.

My organization isn’t huge, so we had seven participants divided into three teams. Each team was given the Challenge: Build the tallest freestanding structure with a marshmallow on top using 20 sticks of spaghetti, a yard of string, and a yard of masking tape in 18 minutes.

It’s that simple.

At the end of the time period, I asked for people to walk away from the structures. One team had been done for several minutes and were confident that their 19.5-inch structure would win. The other two teams were working until the closing seconds, and they barely got their marshmallows on top in time.

Both of those structures immediately collapsed, giving them a score of 0 inches.

You’re probably reading this thinking that you’d be able to win this challenge, or at least build a structure higher than 0 inches. That’s an assumption you’re making. And the key to this challenge is you can’t trust assumptions.

You see, when most people take part in this challenge, they spend the entire 18 minutes focusing on the string, the spaghetti, and the tape. The marshmallow–the overall goal, the most important part–is an afterthought, something you take care of at the very end. Many teams don’t even pick up the marshmallow until they’re ready to put it on top, and then their structure immediately collapses.

That’s because marshmallows aren’t as light and fluffy as our minds perceive them to be. At least, compared to spaghetti and string and tape they’re not.

Our most lofty goals aren’t always what they’re made out to be. That isn’t to say that we shouldn’t have goals–I mean, if I gave people spaghetti, string, and tape with no instruction, not much would happen. But it means that we need to examine our goals closely to truly understand the impact they’d have on our lives before we set out to achieve them. I talk about this a little bit in my post about wanting to become famous.

The other lesson to take away from the Marshmallow Challenge is that prototyping is key. Try out a lot of different things: Date a variety of people before you decide who the perfect mate for you is. Live in a variety of places before you decide where to settle down. Take a myriad of classes your freshman year and try a few internships before choosing a career path.

Surprisingly, the demographic that most often succeeds at this challenge are young kids. Kids play with that marshmallow from the second the challenge begins. Kids try out a dozen different structures during the 18 minutes. And unlike adults, kids don’t spend time jockeying for power.

If you’re a leader or a manager, try out this challenge with your staff this summer. I think you’ll be pleased with the results, and it’ll offer some insight to how your employees work in teams.

16 thoughts on “Management Tactic #57: The Marshmallow Challenge”

  1. Jamey, I like your management tactics. Ever thought of turning them into a booklet/guide for the professionals, innovative managers, and future leaders?

    • Jasmin–Thanks! I like the idea of a book, but I think the content works well on the web as well. We’ll see.

  2. We’ve done similar challenges in my office, and the key really is that trying something is better than sitting around doing nothing and talking about trying. There’s a lean manufacturing concept called “PDCA”. It’s a simple cycle of Plan-Do-Check-Adjust that leads to continuous improvement. Granted, it does involve a “plan” aspect at the beginning, but that can be as simple as “come up with a plan”–any plan–and try it (Do). Then you can make changes, analyze, figure out what’s working and what’s not…but you’re much farther along than if you were still talking about what the best idea could be.

    Ramit Sethi talks about this concept on his blog about personal wealth ( Do SOMETHING. Try SOMETHING…these are the people who figure out how to make it big.

    Great post–lots of applications to life!

    • I really like the sound of PDCA, with “plan” being as you described it. In the workplace, I think we spend WAY too much time sitting around and talking about things instead of executing and trying things. Re-evaluations are often much more invaluable than pre-evaluations.

  3. I’m going to play devil’s advocate on one point: prototyping is not key every time.

    I am someone who is a researcher, a believer in the idea that there are always options, ideas, choices. I was the person in college who read the entire course catalog. (What if there was a class outside my department that I might like? Isn’t that how everyone chooses a schedule?) But I have started to grow out of that because I am realizing that sometimes the best is the enemy of the good. Ever read this article? ( Basically the idea is that the more choices a person has, the less motivated they are to choose, and the less satisfied they are with their choice.

    Just something to think about – sometimes choosing something that is pretty dang good and feeling satisfied with your choice is better than the quest for the best and then feeling exhausted and unsure from the search.

    ps – Prototyping for marshmallow perfection is a go. Insisting on it before getting married or buying a house or finding a dog can be overrated (but can be wildly effective).

    • Emma–Great point. I’ve written about the paradox of choice on the blog before, and you’re right, more choices isn’t necessarily better.

      I think my point here is more about assumptions–don’t assume that you know everything about your goal before you embark upon achieving it.

      For example, I was speaking with a community member recently about her high-school age daughter, who is thinking about going to school to be a lawyer. I asked her why her daughter wants to be a lawyer, and she said that her daughter is good at debate and likes the things lawyers do on TV.

      So she has all these assumptions about what lawyers do–TV makes it look like lawyers spend most of their time shouting “Objection!” in the courtroom, while in reality a huge component of the job is paperwork and research (this is why there’s no Law & Order: IP Law). Instead of continuing down that career path with those assumptions, I think she should shadow a lawyer for a day and maybe intern at a law firm next summer. Test the water before you jump in, you know?


      • YES! Agreed. Testing the waters is key. I was insanely lucky to have a high school program where we got to investigate and job shadow professions we were interested in. I know so many people who switched their proposed major before they got to college because, just as you described, they had no idea the day-to-day tasks involved in what they thought they wanted to do. It was amazing!

  4. We did a similar exercise during an innovation class that I trained. There were a finite set of materials, and the object was to perch a stuffed monkey as high as possible using the materials provided. The object of the exercise was to get users with different innovation styles (like MBTI Types, but more focused on how one innovates) to contribute to the overall task. The challenge is that we got some people who wanted to plan out every detail before touching any of the materials, some people wanted to just start experimenting, some people wanted to see what went up, and modify it. As equal members of the team, they did not incoroprate methods that were not like theirs.

    • Red–I think that’s one of the components of working well in a team–being able to assert your own ideas and methods while respecting and incorporating those of your teammates.

    • Well, it really does take some trial and error–it’ll depend on the spaghetti you’re using. The structure you see in the photo is a very good version of the tower.


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