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Created by Tom Wujec, the Marshmallow Challenge is a simple team-building exercise that generates a lot of insights for agile teams. It is a team building and brainstorming tool that helps create many ideas at once.

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Run the Marshmallow Challenge

The task is simple: teams must build the tallest free-standing structure with the materials available in 18 minutes. At the end, great processing questions based on the activity bring out the insights and aha moments.

https://www.tomwujec.com/design-projects/marshmallow-challenge/

tag Team Building
tag Collaboration
tag Communication
tag Learning
tag Creativity

Steps

1

Plan the Meeting

For agile teams this can be easily done as a retrospective activity or a separate activity meeting. You'll need 60 minutes.

Make sure that you have a closed meeting room, because people tend to move around and talk animatedly (even loudly!) during this activity. If you have a small Scrum team of 6 or less, they can work as a single team, but for teams with 8 or more, a good idea to split in teams of 4+ members. Each team will need a table to work on - or at least the end of a large conference room table.

2

Let the team know ahead of time

It's a good idea to tell your team ahead of time that you'll be doing a team-building activity, especially if you're using retrospective time. Let them know that you'll have processing questions at the end, and the team can reflect how this activity will contribute towards teamwork.

3

Prepare materials

For the Marshmallow Challenge you will need these materials set for each single team:

  • 20 sticks Uncooked Spaghetti - Use standard spaghetti. The spaghetti cannot be too thin or the activity will be too difficult (they will all break). If the spaghetti is too thick, the activite will be too easy (none will break).
  • One yard of string - The string should be able to be broken by hand. If that is not possible, provide scissors for each team as well.
  • One Marshmallow - Use standard size marshmallows, not mini. Use a known classical brand, I used "Campfire" standard size which has standard weight and format.
  • One yard of masking tape - standard size (not wide) will do.
  • One Paper bag - This is only needed if you have many teams, as you'll need to separate each kit and put the items in a paper bag.

As a judge/facilitator for this game you will also need the following:

  • Measuring tape - A small contractor's retractable tape will work. A sewing tape measure will also work.
  • Stopwatch or countdown timer - It's better that you put the timer in a visible place so participants will know how much time they have until the game ends.
  • TV or Projector - If you are running this with many teams, use a tv/projecter for projecting game instructions and for the countdown clock.
4

Explain the game

If you are presenting this to more than one team you may need to create a presentation so they can easily understand the objectives and rules of the game.

Explain as clearly as possible the following:

Objective: Build the Tallest Freestanding Structure: The winning team is the one that has the tallest structure measured from the table top surface to the top of the marshmallow. The structure cannot be suspended from a higher structure, like a chair, ceiling or light fixture.

Rules:

  • The entire marshmallow must be on top - You can't cut the marshmallow or eat parts of it. If the marshmallow is not on the top of the strucutre the team is disqualified.
  • You can use as much as you want from the kit - You are not obliged to use all items on your structure. However, the paper bag and the scissor are not building items and cannot be used in the structure.
  • Break up the Spaghetti, String or Tape - you're allowed to break all of these items
  • The challenge lasts 18 minutes - When time is up, teams are not permitted to hold the structure with their hands or touch it, or they are disqualified.

Make sure to ask for question, and answer any and all that come up!

5

Start the challenge

Announce the start of the challenge and start the timer.

Choose a few times to let them know how much time remains ('10 minutes left!'...'5 minutes left!).

Remind them of the disqualification rules when approaching the end of the challenge - and if you see some team heading toward rule-breaking!

6

Determine the winner

Once time is up, measure each structure, identify the winning team and announce the winner.

7

Processing and Reflection

As the facilitator, ask what they thought of the game.

If you identified some interesting events analogous to agile (problem solving, iterating, collaboration, etc.) describe what you saw and push them to connect their play experience to their real worklife, asking questions like: “How could this experience help our project/product? How could it help our work-life?."

Describe how kids do the marshmallow challenge exercise, then ask if they can relate that to MVP product building.

Kids do Better than Business Students: On virtually every measure of innovation, kindergarteners create taller and more interesting structures.

Prototyping Matters: The reason kids do better than business school students is kids spend more time playing and prototyping. They naturally start with the marshmallow and stick in the sticks. The Business School students spend a vast amount of time planning, then executing on the plan, with almost no time to fix the design once they put the marshmallow on top.

The Marshmallow is a Metaphor for the Hidden Assumptions of a Project: The assumption in the Marshmallow Challenge is that marshmallows are light and fluffy and easily supported by the spaghetti sticks. When you actually try to build the structure, the marshmallows don’t seem so light. The lesson in the marshmallow challenge is that we need to identify the assumptions in our project – the real customer needs, the cost of the product, the duration of the service – and test them early and often. That’s the mechanism that leads to effective innovation.

8

Closure

Ask if they liked the exercise and if there is a way you can improve it.