Learning prototyping with the marshmallow challenge

As mentioned in my last post about prototyping, Tom Wujec’s TED talk is an excellent way to learn more about prototyping. The title of the talk is “Build a tower, build a team.” I highly suggest that you watch the TED talk (it’s only 7 mins long), but I’ll give an overview what this exercise is, how to give one, and some of my observations (and the benefits) from conduction a marshmallow challenge.  I’ve given this challenge to adults as well as my daughter’s kindergarten class and it is a lot of fun. 


What is the marshmallow challenge

It’s an exercise where teams of 4 compete against each other to build the tallest tower out of 20 dry sticks of spaghetti, a yard of tape, a yard of string, and 1 marshmallow. Major rules: 1) you have 18 minutes 2) the marshmallow must be on top of the tower and 3) the tower must be built on a table – the measurement is from the bottom of the tower to the marshmallow (In other words, you can’t stack chairs on a table and win that way!)

How do I give one of these?

Go to marshmallowchallenge.com. Everything you need is here, including slides from Tom’s TED talk. The last time I did this, this exercise was part of an overview of design thinking.

What have I observed from these exercises?

First, the participants tend to have A LOT of fun. The competitive juices are flowing. The clock is ticking. They are trying to build the highest tower of anyone – ever – on the planet.

Second, it’s a great example in the importance of prototyping. The teams that do the best are the ones that build smaller scale towers and test out the structure with the marshmallow on top. I have a small sample size here, but most teams I see don’t even think about the marshmallow until there is a minute left. At that point, it’s too late and the tower ends up tumbling. Per Tom’s talk and my own observations with my daughters class, kids are always thinking about the marshmallow. (Note: I think this is largely because they are focused on who gets to eat the marshmallow after the exercise!) See the picture below. This is a montage from a recent challenge of teams’ marshmallows with about 1 minute left. Notice how many of the marshmallows are still on the table!


Back to the snowflake example, kids learn by prototyping and test out the structure along the way. In fact, kindergartners tend to have better structures than recent business school graduates! 

So what are the benefits?

Hopefully these are somewhat obvious by now…this is a great team building exercise and also hammers home the importance of prototyping. I like to end the challenge with a questions, “what project are you working on where you are waiting too long to put the marshmallow on top?” Then I give some tangible examples of thing that I have done to build prototypes.

As you can tell, I love this exercise and would encourage you to consider hosting your own marshmallow challenges. In the next two weeks I will be hosting a couple of challenges that should be interesting. First with a 3rd grade class (my guess is they will do better than kindergartners) and second with insurance professionals at the Retirement Industry Conference (my guess is they will do worse than the 3rd graders!).

I’ll report back on the results soon. Stay tuned!

2 thoughts on “Learning prototyping with the marshmallow challenge

  1. Pingback: Marshmallow Challenge Results | Build To Think

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