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.
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.
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.
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.
For the Marshmallow Challenge you will need these materials set for each single team:
As a judge/facilitator for this game you will also need the following:
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.
Make sure to ask for question, and answer any and all that come up!
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!
Once time is up, measure each structure, identify the winning team and announce the winner.
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.
Ask if they liked the exercise and if there is a way you can improve it.