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TED2010

Tom Wujec: Build a tower, build a team

February 14, 2010

Tom Wujec presents some surprisingly deep research into the "marshmallow problem" -- a simple team-building exercise that involves dry spaghetti, one yard of tape and a marshmallow. Who can build the tallest tower with these ingredients? And why does a surprising group always beat the average?

Tom Wujec - Designer
Tom Wujec studies how we share and absorb information. He's an innovative practitioner of business visualization -- using design and technology to help groups solve problems and understand ideas. He is a Fellow at Autodesk. Full bio

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Double-click the English subtitles below to play the video.
Several years ago here at TED, Peter Skillman
00:16
introduced a design challenge
00:18
called the marshmallow challenge.
00:20
And the idea's pretty simple:
00:22
Teams of four have to build the tallest free-standing structure
00:24
out of 20 sticks of spaghetti,
00:26
one yard of tape, one yard of string
00:28
and a marshmallow.
00:30
The marshmallow has to be on top.
00:32
And, though it seems really simple, it's actually pretty hard
00:34
because it forces people
00:37
to collaborate very quickly.
00:39
And so, I thought this was an interesting idea,
00:41
and I incorporated it into a design workshop.
00:43
And it was a huge success.
00:46
And since then, I've conducted
00:48
about 70 design workshops across the world
00:50
with students and designers and architects,
00:52
even the CTOs of the Fortune 50,
00:54
and there's something about this exercise
00:57
that reveals very deep lessons
00:59
about the nature of collaboration,
01:01
and I'd like to share some of them with you.
01:03
So, normally, most people begin
01:05
by orienting themselves to the task.
01:08
They talk about it, they figure out what it's going to look like,
01:11
they jockey for power.
01:14
Then they spend some time planning, organizing,
01:16
they sketch and they lay out spaghetti.
01:18
They spend the majority of their time
01:21
assembling the sticks into ever-growing structures.
01:23
And then finally, just as they're running out of time,
01:26
someone takes out the marshmallow,
01:29
and then they gingerly put it on top,
01:31
and then they stand back, and -- ta-da! --
01:34
they admire their work.
01:37
But what really happens, most of the time,
01:39
is that the "ta-da" turns into an "uh-oh,"
01:41
because the weight of the marshmallow causes the entire structure
01:44
to buckle and to collapse.
01:46
So there are a number of people
01:48
who have a lot more "uh-oh" moments than others,
01:50
and among the worst are recent graduates of business school.
01:53
(Laughter)
01:56
They lie, they cheat, they get distracted
01:59
and they produce really lame structures.
02:02
And of course there are teams
02:04
that have a lot more "ta-da" structures,
02:06
and among the best are recent graduates of kindergarten.
02:08
(Laughter)
02:11
And it's pretty amazing.
02:13
As Peter tells us,
02:15
not only do they produce the tallest structures,
02:17
but they're the most interesting structures of them all.
02:19
So the question you want to ask is:
02:22
How come? Why? What is it about them?
02:24
And Peter likes to say that
02:26
none of the kids spend any time
02:28
trying to be CEO of Spaghetti, Inc. Right?
02:30
They don't spend time jockeying for power.
02:33
But there's another reason as well.
02:35
And the reason is that business students are trained
02:37
to find the single right plan, right?
02:39
And then they execute on it.
02:42
And then what happens is, when they put the marshmallow on the top,
02:44
they run out of time and what happens?
02:46
It's a crisis.
02:48
Sound familiar? Right.
02:50
What kindergarteners do differently
02:53
is that they start with the marshmallow,
02:55
and they build prototypes, successive prototypes,
02:57
always keeping the marshmallow on top,
03:00
so they have multiple times to fix when they build prototypes along the way.
03:02
Designers recognize this type of collaboration
03:05
as the essence of the iterative process.
03:08
And with each version, kids get instant feedback
03:11
about what works and what doesn't work.
03:13
So the capacity to play in prototype is really essential,
03:16
but let's look at how different teams perform.
03:19
So the average for most people is around 20 inches;
03:22
business schools students, about half of that;
03:25
lawyers, a little better, but not much better than that,
03:27
kindergarteners, better than most adults.
03:30
Who does the very best?
03:32
Architects and engineers, thankfully.
03:34
(Laughter)
03:37
Thirty-nine inches is the tallest structure I've seen.
03:42
And why is it? Because they understand triangles
03:45
and self-reinforcing geometrical patterns
03:48
are the key to building
03:50
stable structures.
03:52
So CEOs, a little bit better than average,
03:54
but here's where it gets interesting.
03:57
If you put you put an executive admin. on the team,
03:59
they get significantly better.
04:01
(Laughter)
04:03
It's incredible. You know, you look around, you go, "Oh, that team's going to win."
04:06
You can just tell beforehand. And why is that?
04:08
Because they have special skills
04:10
of facilitation.
04:12
They manage the process, they understand the process.
04:14
And any team who manages
04:16
and pays close attention to work
04:18
will significantly improve the team's performance.
04:21
Specialized skills and facilitation skills
04:24
are the combination that leads to strong success.
04:27
If you have 10 teams that typically perform,
04:30
you'll get maybe six or so that have standing structures.
04:32
And I tried something interesting.
04:34
I thought, let's up the ante, once.
04:36
So I offered a 10,000 dollar prize of software to the winning team.
04:39
So what do you think happened to these design students?
04:42
What was the result?
04:45
Here's what happened:
04:48
Not one team had a standing structure.
04:50
If anyone had built, say, a one inch structure,
04:54
they would have taken home the prize.
04:57
So, isn't that interesting? That high stakes
04:59
have a strong impact.
05:01
We did the exercise again with the same students.
05:03
What do you think happened then?
05:05
So now they understand the value of prototyping.
05:07
So the same team went from being the very worst
05:13
to being among the very best.
05:15
They produced the tallest structures in the least amount of time.
05:17
So there's deep lessons for us
05:20
about the nature of incentives and success.
05:22
So, you might ask: Why would anyone
05:25
actually spend time writing a marshmallow challenge?
05:27
And the reason is, I help create
05:30
digital tools and processes
05:32
to help teams build cars and video games
05:34
and visual effects.
05:36
And what the marshmallow challenge does
05:38
is it helps them identify the hidden assumptions.
05:40
Because, frankly,
05:43
every project has its own marshmallow, doesn't it?
05:45
The challenge provides a shared experience,
05:48
a common language,
05:50
a common stance to build the right prototype.
05:52
And so, this is the value of the experience,
05:54
of this so simple exercise.
05:56
And those of you who are interested
05:58
may want to go to MarshmallowChallenge.com.
06:00
It's a blog that you can look at
06:02
how to build the marshmallows.
06:04
There's step-by-step instructions on this.
06:06
There are crazy examples from around the world
06:08
of how people tweak and adjust the system.
06:11
There's world records that are on this as well.
06:13
And the fundamental lesson, I believe,
06:15
is that design truly is
06:17
a contact sport.
06:19
It demands that we bring all of our senses to the task,
06:21
and that we apply the very best of our thinking,
06:24
our feeling and our doing
06:26
to the challenge that we have at hand.
06:29
And sometimes, a little prototype of this experience
06:31
is all that it takes to turn us
06:34
from an "uh-oh" moment to a "ta-da" moment.
06:36
And that can make a big difference.
06:38
Thank you very much.
06:40
(Applause)
06:42

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Tom Wujec - Designer
Tom Wujec studies how we share and absorb information. He's an innovative practitioner of business visualization -- using design and technology to help groups solve problems and understand ideas. He is a Fellow at Autodesk.

Why you should listen

Tom Wujec is a Fellow at Autodesk, the makers of design software for engineers, filmmakers, designers. At Autodesk, he has worked on software including SketchBook Pro, PortfolioWall and Maya (which won an Academy Award for its contribution to the film industry). As a Fellow, he helps companies work in the emerging field of business visualization, the art of using images, sketches and infographics to help teams solve complex problems as a group.

He's the author of several books, including Five-Star Mind: Games and Puzzles to Stimulate Your Creativity and Imagination.

The original video is available on TED.com
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