Every project has a marshmallow!

There is a well-known ‘team’ exercise, developed by Tom Wujec. It is based on an idea from Peter Skillman, called ‘The Spaghetti Tower Challenge’ or ‘The Marshmallow Challenge’. This is a race against the clock where people work as a team to build the highest tower possible out of dried spaghetti, string and tape – and, right at the end of their allotted time, have to place one marshmallow on the very top of their structure.

As described on Tom Wujec’s website, he is “a technology pioneer, TED speaker, entrepreneur, writer and facilitator who helps people solve complex problems and create wickedly great outcomes”.

Tom devised this engaging and entertaining exercise. This has been delivered by many people, myself included, around the world to hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people and each time it delivers both fun and insight to those involved.

Using the resources supplied the object is to produce the tallest possible structure and place a marshmallow safely on the top.

The structure must be freestanding.

The winner is the team with the highest tower (that has the marshmallow placed on top).

But this is really fun! In case you are observing this event, or indeed if you are running this event, is what happens in the last minute or two of the 18 minutes, the teams have to complete the challenge mandatorily. 
And that is is one of the key points about this exercise, time – you don’t have long and it forces people to engage and organize and make decisions very quickly.

Spaghetti Marshmallow Tower

Image Source: https://bit.ly/2njQdHm

For sure all of the time is really fun. But the insight into team behavior is right at the end of the time when that marshmallow is placed carefully at the pinnacle of the tower. The team has spent typically 16 minutes discussing, arguing about, planning (in some cases), designing, building and often rebuilding (in many cases).

You may also like: 10 Essential Time Management Strategies

It is this magical moment when the realization hits many teams. Not all teams admit but many do, that the tower is indeed magnificent and that it is freestanding as per the instructions. It reaches great heights, as well as being a thing of great beauty, but oh no! It was never tested with the actual marshmallow placed on top until those last few seconds and guess what? Yes, in many cases, the tower cannot take the weight and collapses with a crash and a groan from the team of amateur architects and builders. And sometimes it just bends over with the marshmallow barely off of the ground. This is what is known as the ‘ta-da’ moment.

Every project has a marshmallow, an end-goal, a deliverable (or deliverables), an anticipated business benefit and an expected outcome or two.

Tom himself offers some great insights into this phenomena in his TED talk.

What he speaks to is the fact that some of the best designers of towers are not business graduates but kindergarten children. The main reason for this is that the children start with the marshmallow and prototype always using the marshmallow to test their ideas. The rest of us tend to start with the tower and add in the marshmallow right at the very end, almost as an afterthought. And that tends to end with the ‘ta-da’ moment rapidly changing to an ‘uh-oh’ moment.

Therefore, it is good for us all to remember that every project has a marshmallow. It has an end-goal, a deliverable (or deliverables), an anticipated business benefit and an expected outcome or two.

Related reading: Collaboration – The Key to Organizational Success

I was, some time ago, on a panel of ‘experts’ at a project management conference and there was a great question from the audience about project quality. This led me to discuss what I refer to as the ‘visibility of purpose’, or the understanding of the end goal of a project – the ‘marshmallow’ if you like.

When I regularly ran reviews of projects under the management of the PMO (Project Management Office) I led, I was able to identify common issues that challenged our projects. One thing I discover was that in a number of cases where I assessed the ‘health’ of the project, a lot of the project team members no longer (if in fact, they had ever in the first place – that was always difficult to identify) understood what the project was aiming to deliver at the business level. Certainly, I noted that the larger the project and the longer the time frame of the project, the more significant was the lack of appreciation by team members of the true purpose of the project. It seemed to me that many did not know what sort of ‘marshmallow’ they were trying to deliver. Or indeed if there even was a ‘marshmallow’, right up until the end, until the enforced ‘ta-da’ moment and that rarely ended well.

So the key is to try and ensure that ‘visibility of purpose’. It is always at the forefront of every team members thought, no matter what their role is, in order to keep the project focused on quality. Make it personal. Make it relevant. Make it real. Make it tangible. Make it a ‘marshmallow’ that they all understand. And remind the team on a regular basis that in fact, there is a ‘marshmallow’ at the end of the project.

Learn what all those kindergarten children instinctively know, that the ‘marshmallow’ is important. It can’t be placed on the edge of the table only to be remembered at the very last moment.

And one last point. Don’t mess with the ‘marshmallow’. I once led this exercise only to observe one team member, when the ‘uh-oh’ moment happened with less than one minute remaining. In an attempt to rescue his team, he ended up eating half the marshmallow before replacing the remnants on the top of their spaghetti tower. It worked and I guess it might be called ‘out of the box’ thinking but it wasn’t what was required and that team was disqualified.

Every project has a marshmallow, so never forget the marshmallow. ‘Ta-da!’.

Get Started | Join our PMP Bootcamp now!

About Author
Peter Taylor