Refuting the Marshmallow Challenge

Last week, as part of a team-building exercise, my boss had our department do the Marshmallow Challenge.  For those unfamiliar, the Marshmallow Challenge is the most recent in a long line of idiotic business “games” designed to demonstrate some point that most employees readily grasp, but managers seem to be unable to convey without breaking out craft supplies from an elementary school.  Basically each team is given a marshmallow, some uncooked spaghetti, a length of string and a length of tape, and given 18 minutes to build a freestanding structure to get the marshmallow as high as possible.

You may be asking yourself, “what the fuck is the point of this?”  The idea is that after the 18 minutes and the hilarity of getting people to try to build their structures, the lesson comes that the best at building these structures aren’t business students, but kindergartners!  This is supposed to open your eyes to the fact that…um…kids are better at things?  It’s kind of muddled at that point.  Also, it’s a complete lie.

The presentation notes, in fairly small print because it doesn’t support their conclusion, that the actual best at this are engineers.  You know, people who are specifically trained and have experience doing stuff like this.  So the actual lesson should be: HIRE THE RIGHT PEOPLE WHO KNOW WHAT THE FUCK THEY ARE DOING.  Instead, it’s supposed to show you that too much planning is a bad thing.

The lesson goes that kindergartners are good at this because they don’t spend time planning, and just begin building, trial and error style.  That’s great…but again, that means the rules are different than the challenge – if the kids are “rapid prototyping” (which is what the presentation is getting at), they would have to have more than the allotted materials.  Each attempt would require more sticks and tape and string because there’s no chance they don’t break or use up the material.  However, in the challenge, the material is limited.  No replacing the sticks, no replacing the tape or the string.  Also, I guarantee that more than once a kid ate the marshmallow and it had to be replaced.  If that’s supposed to represent your goal in business, I don’t think that the best metaphor is one greedy kid eating it all, though it certainly does describe most CEOs.

So basically you have two fallacies right off the bat: One, kids are NOT the best at this, highly trained professionals are; and Two, the “rapid prototyping” of the kids only working with essentially unlimited starting materials.  Really the moral of this whole this is: spend the money on people who know what the fuck they are doing (engineers), and spend the money on materials so they can make multiple prototypes.  Or if you want to turn it into non-tangible business goals, hire people who best know how to achieve the goal, and give them all the data/info/etc. they need to make it happen.  That’s what the point SHOULD be.  Instead it’s that kids are better than business students.

Well, that’s fucking useful to know.

But then the “Challenge” (I’m using sarcastic quotes now, since it’s based on two lies) goes a step further to make the point that winning the challenge earns you nothing.  It claims incentive makes things bad.  That’s lovely 1% thinking there.  Of course your workers shouldn’t be PAID or anything, goodness no.  The WORK should be the reward, right?  Fuck that, Mr. Tom Wujec (the asshole who created this whole idiocy and presented it at TED).  Fuck you for further impressing upon business types that paying people as little as fucking possible is the best way to go.  In fact, your whole goddamned premise is false.  Incentive means “to get something for work done”.  It doesn’t matter if the incentive is money or to win praise, you’re still doing it FOR A REASON, idiot.  Doing something for no reason at all is insanity.  But hey, that’s what Mr. Wujec would like you to do.

I’m sure he doesn’t have to worry about whether or not to put gas in his car or eat this week, so sure, to him, incentives only cause people to fail.  He discovered what sports fans have known for, oh, I don’t know, the history of sports: high stakes situations can cause people to choke.  Fan-fucking-tastic, Mr. Wujec.  That doesn’t mean incentive leads to failure, it means STRESS BECAUSE THE PEOPLE MAKING THE RULES ARE BEING ASSHOLES ABOUT COMPENSATION LEADS TO FAILURE.

But hey, way to miss the point.  I bet kindergartners would have gotten it.

By the way, if you go to the “Marshmallow Challenge” website (it’s linked above, I’m not giving them two links), you can see Mr. Wujac delivering this “breakthrough” concept at TED (and, therefore, essentially setting up another generation of people being taken advantage of by incompetent bosses looking for easy solutions to complex issues).  If there’s ever been a picture that is more deserving of the caption “DOUCHEBAG”, I’ve never seen it.

So in conclusion, fuck this idiotic challenge, and its inventor, who was so insistent on making a point his demonstration doesn’t actually support, he released yet another business manager virus upon the world.  I hope there’s a special hell just for you where they make you watch poorly designed powerpoint presentations and do ridiculous arts and crafts for all eternity.  Preferably while doused in extremely caustic acid.

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12 thoughts on “Refuting the Marshmallow Challenge

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  1. I came to your blog to read your excruciatingly awesome commentary on the Avengers (and I would like to add to your theory: my little sister things the blue thing in Loki’s scepter might be an Infinity Gem as well). I was feeling dissatisfied with Loki’s character development, especially when other characters were commenting on how they didn’t understand his motivation and it was basically never dealt with in the movie.

    So, that was an awesome post. However, I had to comment on this one. This is great analysis on why this kind of team building exercise is crap. So much of these types of exercises are built on stupid premises that don’t make sense in the real world. Like…do businesses really want employees who waste materials and resources because they don’t have any clue what they’re going to do before getting started? I’m going to check this guy’s TED conference out. This is really harmful information to be putting out there, and for other people to take it seriously is bad. All people need some sort of incentive to do stuff. If people don’t have incentive, they’d all be suicidal. Like, seriously…WHAT WOULD BE THE POINT TO ANYTHING?

    Very frustrating.

    Awesome blog, though!

  2. Sad to hear that the above is the message you got from the experience but may have more to do with your general attitude towards the ideas you think you were supposed to get from it than the actual challenge or its message.
    MY understanding from it is: 1) Visualize your end goal; 2) Plan; 3) Make an honest attempt; 4) Adjust your plan if its not working well; 5) Try again… oh, and 6) Leave your ‘box’ at the door when its a project or problem you have never tackled before.
    Kids, Admins, Architects is just to show you how different mindsets work at a problem… ergo the importance of stepping outside your ‘box’ when working on INNOVATION (that word being a key word).
    Plus its simple fun and a good ice breaker… no need to blow your top off 🙂

    1. agree.. how people work in a team.. see themselves as an individual and as a team… it over checks both the aspects…

  3. Mask of Stupid Marshmallow – did you actually even view the links above ? or perhaps your company didn’t represent the learning points well. Forget about your ‘conclusions’ and the more profound learning areas, but simple stated facts you have posted are incorrect..eg. the study clearly shows that engineers & architects win…not kids, the study doesn’t say that incentives don’t work, although not stated directly, the Challenge was actually created and used in Nokia in 2007, etc.

    The odd thing is that one key take-away is about understanding limiting assumptions (represented as the marshmallow)…and the problem that it could cause (which can readily and perhaps easily addressed). The ironic area is that in your case…you are actually the Marshmallow – with your assumptions formed based on, at least in part, a lack of understanding of simple facts and/or your own values & experiences.

  4. Yes, I must agree with the general consensus that your response of blind anger with little rational support for your position indicates you lost. Your structure crashed and you got a 0 height, which crashed your ego. Half of your supporting argument (I’m trying to be kind) was based on false facts and much of the rest on logical conclusions even if the facts were as you perceived them. The experts with knowledge and experience did win. But the main point I took away was when you don’t have the expertise then experimentation is more likely to give better results than any mental analysis due to the inaccurate assumptions inexperience leads to. Experiments help answer the unknowns. Ego clouds ones ability to accept there are unknowns.
    Conclusions I might draw are not children are better than business students but in general children are ego less learners ( marshmallow eaters the outliers) where as the ones that later go into business school have developed a ego that are somehow better and should manage others.
    Many of the greatest leaders did not go to business school.

    Disclaimer: I’m an engineer, with a different ego bias. I know what you want and it has lots of knobs, buttons and data readouts on it.

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