Recently, I came across something called the Marshmallow Challenge. It is an exercise that has been done with hundreds of people, ranging from CEOs to kindergarteners. A deceptively “silly” setup, it’s also an experience that can change the way people approach collaboration and innovation.
The task is simple: in 18 minutes, teams must build the tallest free-standing structure out of 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow. The marshmallow needs to be on top. And let me tell you -- I never thought I’d learn key lessons in medical collaboration from a marshmallow and a handful of spaghetti, but I did.
Tom Wujec shares learnings from the challenge in the video below. But in addition to his clever insights, I was really struck by the connections to medical collaboration and our daily work as providers. So, after the video are 3 takeaways you can steal for your practice of medical collaboration right away...
- Be more like a kindergartener. When teams in the Marshmallow Challenge are ranked, MBAs do the worst, with kindergarteners significantly out-performing them. One reason for this is that the kids start trying things from the very beginning, experimenting with different ways of assembling the spaghetti to hold up the marshmallow. As for the MBAs, they take almost the entire time to orient themselves, talk, and plan. So when they finally put their marshmallow on their structure near the time limit, the structure often falls down... and they don’t have time to try something else. I see this as a crucial finding for all of us doing the difficult, messy, fun work of medical collaboration. When all else fails, dive in and engage -- by working with your colleagues, you’ll find the best way to collaborate as you go. And when things start to wobble, you’ll still have plenty of time to try a different way to stack the marshmallow.
- You don’t need to be CEO of “Spaghetti, Inc.” As Tom points out, an “I lead, you follow” mentality can really slow down the collaborative process. In the Challenge, teams found that when MBAs took over from the beginning and started directing team members (making themselves CEO of Spaghetti, Inc.), the process stagnated. While it’s important to have leaders, it’s crucial that those leaders act in service of the group’s process, rather than directing things for the sake of it.
- If you think you only need specialists on your team, think again. It turns out that a team of specialists (CEOs or engineers) do pretty well in the challenge. But the teams that do best include specialists AND an administrator/assistant. Diverse teams do better every time because while specialist skills are great, it’s also paramount to have people who facilitate the process. Personally, I love the part of medical when we all -- nurses, aides, administrators, specialists, etc -- come together to collaborate around a single goal. You build a better marshmallow tower and, to be honest, it’s more fun.