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Our Hidden Assumptions

June 26, 2012

marshmellow challengeRecently, I was asked to conduct a team building exercise. Immediately, the Marshmallow Challenge came to mind. It is not only fun but also helps us understand how we can re-evaluate our assumptions when working with a client or executing new ideas.

I first came across the Marshmallow Challenge when teaching a graduate school course on organizational change. It was during a required viewing of a TED.com presentation by Tom Wujec where he discussed the exercise and its implementation. When I noticed the simplicity of the task and the important lesson we can learn, I started to use the exercise in organizational training sessions.

In business and in life, we make assumptions. We make them about people, projects and issues in general.


For example:

Someone tells you that there is a cabin on the side of a mountain. Three people are inside and they are dead. How did they die? The answer is that they were killed in a plane crash. The three people were the pilot, co-pilot and navigator. They crashed in a snow storm. The false assumption would be that the cabin was a mountain cabin when in actuality it’s the cabin of a jetliner.

How about another story:

A man is walking down the street, sees a bar and enters. He asks the bartender for a glass of water. The bartender pulls out a gun and points it at him. The man says “thank you” and leaves the bar. What happened? The man who asked for the glass of water had the hiccups. The bartender pulled the gun to scare the hiccups away. The false assumption is the bartender pulled the gun in order to kill the man.

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On many occasions, I have started off seminars, workshop or other training events using an icebreaker where I ask the attendees to write down as many birds as possible. I issue a simple rule that they only have 15 seconds to compile their list. At the conclusion of the time period, I ask if anyone had a list with more than 10 birds and so on until I find the person who had the longest list. Then, I ask the person to read off their list. Without fail, the person lists typical names of birds. On a few occasions, I remember getting a couple of bird enthusiasts who had some rather impressive lists. However, no one wrote Larry Bird, Big Bird, Tweetie, Woodstock, etc. What happened? We automatically go to default thinking, or a mental model that has built-in assumptions. The danger is that we take this same level of thinking when approaching a problem, client need or even when developing a new approach to business.

In business, we make certain assumptions that can be quite harmful. For example, assuming you know what the client wants when we have not asked what they most value. Ah, value is defined by the receiver! Another example is that good managers make good leaders or longevity breeds leadership capability. Time and time again, these have been shown to be false assumptions.

So, enter the Marshmallow Challenge:

The Marshmallow Challenge requires a team to take 20 pieces of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string and one marshmallow and they are instructed to build the tallest freestanding structure in 18 minutes. You can use as much or as little of the kit as you want. At the end of the 18 minutes, you may not be touching or supporting the structure otherwise, you will be disqualified.

  • Those who consistently perform poorly are business students and recent MBA graduates. The reason is that they are typically taught that there is only one solution. They also jockey for power.
  • Those who consistently perform well are kindergarten students. Why? They are not interested in becoming CEO of Spaghetti, Inc, or focusing on the team of “me, myself and I”. They exhibit a prototyping behavior where they refine, rebuild, explore and repeat. Lawyers perform well with an average of 15 inch structures, architects and engineers (thank goodness) with an average height of 39 inches. The overall average is 20 inches. Through all the cases where the exercise has been conducted, business students/MBA graduates come in at an average of 10 inches in height. Hmmm, wonder how this impacts business, innovation and thought leadership. Status quo anyone?

The exercise is designed to help teams identify the Marshmallows in their projects. The Marshmallow is a metaphor for hidden assumptions of a project. The assumption is that marshmallows are light and can be easily supported by spaghetti sticks. We quickly learn that marshmallows are not so light.

The lesson is that we need to identify the marshmallows in our projects. This may include how to meet customer needs, working with a team member, or when embarking upon a new process. Refine, rebuilt, explore, repeat – sharing ideas and exploring new ways of doing things and removing the hidden assumptions (Marshmallows) so we can allow an effective mechanism for innovation.

When we think of a glass of soda (pop for you mid-Westerners) we observe bubbles floating up to the top. When a bubble bangs into a barrier, it dissolves and never reaches the top to be freed and enjoyed in the larger universe of possibilities. Ideas work the same way. ideaOffering ideas and solutions for new ways of thinking, behaving and executing strategy and processes can die a quick death when encountering poor mental models, organizational inertia, or group think. If barriers are permitted (e.g. “we have always done it this way”, “it is not broke so why fix it”, or “this has been successful in the past, why change”) then we lose. We never get to explore the possibilities of that next big idea. An idea that that results in a tangible value to the organization.

For reflection:

Ask yourself a few questions. Does my management or leadership style create barriers? Am I holding on to the status quo? Is a place of comfort a place of hiding? Why do I resist change? Am I contributing to my team in a creative and collaborative manner? Am I driving the organization by staring through the rear view mirror?

People hold onto the status quo because they are trying to protect their “turf”, feel threatened or just do not know how to get to the next level. I submit that there is a time to break it (old way of doing things) and make it better. Do we want to be known as the thought leader, innovator and think tank that is redefining the business model, or are we simply driving to the middle of the pack?

Wayne Gretzky was once asked what made him such a great hockey player. He answered, “I skate to where the puck is going, not where it has been.” Are we skating to where the puck has been, or to where it is going? Are we identifying the marshmallows in our work? What are we doing about it?

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John GarberSolutions strategist serving as an outsourced human capital, employee benefits, risk manager and trusted advisor for growth oriented – strategic thinking organizations.  John can be reached at 610-233-4878 or by e-mail at jgarber@theaddisgroup.com.  The author’s opinions and posts in no way reflect the Beyond Insurance brand or any other affiliate within Addis Intellectual Capital.

One Comment leave one →
  1. June 27, 2012 10:24 am

    Scott, It’s great that you encouraged John to share this thinking on the Marshmallow Challenge. He makes the apt comparison between MBA students and kindergarten students. Why does this stark difference occur?

    It reflects my observation that kindergarten students are used to asking tens of questions a day, but by the time they become MBA students we are lucky if they ask one per day. So why does this happen? My best thought on this phenomenon is that questioning becomes suppressed within us: our parents shut down our many questions, our teachers shut down too many questions, and our college professors shut down too many questions. And then, subsequently, our work places shut down too many questions, too. So perhaps the desire for questioning things is wrung out of most of us.

    Of course there are people like John who steadfastly refuse to stop questioning. Every society has its rebels and they are looked on as ‘odd balls.’ Eventually societies become stale with the status quo and then begin to atrophy. Is that what is beginning to happen in the US? No one wants to ruffle any feathers because of the possibility of being ostracized in our world of status quo.

    Many companies are craving innovation in our post-Great Recession. But my bet is: if they let the questioning genie out of the bottle to find that silver bullet, the genie will quickly be put back in the bottle when that silver bullet is found.

    My conclusion is: we have become too enamoured with management; that is, managing the system and culture of companies to get them to conform. Where we have true leadership, people are encouraged to question and contribute in any way that will further the organization’s growth and prosperity…odd balls are accepted because their regular questions produce occasional brilliant outcomes. Our thinking has to start with: Do we have enough leadership around here or are we over-managed? Best, Peter

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