Improving Collaboration: All you need is a marshmallow

I’ve just finished watching this brief TED Talk with Tom Wujec about the “marshmallow challenge.”   It’s a collaboration and innovation challenge that asks participant teams to build the tallest structure they can in 18 minutes.  Their building tools?

  • 20 sticks of spaghetti
  • A yard each of string and masking tape
  • A marshmallow that must be placed on top

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Typical goofy but fun management training & teambuilding exercise, right?

Are you surprised that newly-minted MBAs suck at the task (too much focus on devising the perfect plan and no backup)? Or that recent kindergarten graduates excel (their view: lead, schmead…Let’s start with the marshmallow and keep going ’til something works)?  Bet it’s no shocker that CEO groups do slightly better than average (it’s their job to solve sticky ambiguous problems).

For me, the magnificent moments of Wujec’s talk surround the  addition of executive admins and the limitations of incentives.

  1. Executive Admins: CEO teams that include executive assistants are among the highest performers.  Wujec suggests this is because they have group process and facilitation skills.  The teams that have people with special skills and who pay attention to the work and the process get more done.  Um, yeah.  Sounds pretty basic right?  But do most organizations or even workgroups have that?   What would it look like if for every meeting and every project we had someone who took on the role of paying attention to the process of how we achieve our work?  And if we slowed down enough at the beginning and the end and just checked in?

  2. Limitation of Incentives. This won’t be much of a surprise to anyone familiar with Daniel Pink’s work on motivation. When Wujec offered a $10,000 prize to the team who created the tallest structure, all teams failed to build something viable.  Four months later after the same teams had studied innovation and learned about the importance of prototypes, their results were among the best.Wujec offers this formula:
    • Incentives + Low Skills ≠ Success
    • Incentives + High Skills = Success

Newsflash: Sounds like, “Success = Flow.”  Hey, maybe we should strive to find ways to get our teams, work groups and emerging leaders to achieve this state that encompasses single-minded motivation, and a mindset in which all members are completely engaged, engrossed and fully immersed in the task at hand. What might that look like?  And while we’re at it, how about we create and continuously promote environments that balance challenge and skill (the former slightly exceeding the latter), consistently provide clear goals and timely feedback, and pay attention to how we’re getting the job done?

Seems like a sensible way to build successful, sustainable, collaborative structures.   And ones where sticky stuff doesn’t topple down from the top.

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