A team-building activity in which teams must compete to build the tallest free-standing structure out of 20 sticks of spaghetti, one meter of tape, one meter of string, and one marshmallow. It emphasizes group communication, leadership dynamics, collaboration, innovation and problem solving strategy. It teaches a lean approach to risk management and the value of continuous experimentation – to reduce waste. Recommended for teams new to agile.
Time: 30-120 minutes
Group Size: 2-40+
- 20 Sticks of spaghetti (per group)
- 1 metre of string (per group)
- 1 metre of tape (per group)
- 1 paper bag or envelope (per group)
- 1 marshmallow (per group)
- Measuring Tape
Create a marshmallow challenge kit for each team, with each kit containing 20 sticks of spaghetti, 1 metre of masking tape, 1 metre of string and 1 marshmallow. These ingredients should be placed into a paper lunch bag or envelope, which simplifies distribution and hides the contents, maximizing the element of surprise.
Organize the group into teams of 3-6 people. Each team should sit around a table. The whole group should work in the same space, fairly close together.
Give the instructions. Be clear and concise about the goals and rules of the challenge.
Build the tallest freestanding structure: The winning team is the one that has the tallest structure measured either from the tabletop surface or from floor to the top of the marshmallow. That means the structure cannot be suspended from a higher structure, like a chair, ceiling or chandelier.
The entire marshmallow must be on top: The entire marshmallow needs to be on the top of the structure. Cutting or eating part of the marshmallow disqualifies the team.
Use as much or as little of the kit as needed: Teams can use as many or as few of the 20 spaghetti sticks as needed, and as much or as little of the string or tape. The team cannot use the paper bag / envelope as part of their structure.
Break up the spaghetti, string or tape: Teams are free to break the spaghetti, or cut the tape and string to create new structures.
The challenge lasts 18 minutes: Teams cannot hold on to the structure when the time runs out. Those touching or supporting the structure at the end of the exercise will be disqualified.
Ensure everyone understands the rules: Repeat the rules if necessary and ask if anyone has any questions before starting.
Start the countdown clock and music at the start of the challenge.
Remind the teams of the time: Countdown the time. It can be effective to call out the time at 12 minutes, 9 minutes (halfway), 7 minutes, 5 minutes, 3 minutes, 2 minutes, 1 minute, 30 seconds and a ten-second countdown.
Call out how the teams are doing: Let the entire group know how the teams are progressing. Call out each time a team builds a standing structure. Build a friendly rivalry. Encourage participants to look around, and don’t be afraid to raise the energy and the stakes.
Remind the teams that holders will be disqualified: Several teams will have the desire to hold on to their structure at the end to stabilize it because placing the marshmallow on top will cause the structure to buckle. The winning structure needs to be stable.
After the clock runs out, ask everyone in the room to sit down so everyone can see the structures.
Measure the structures: From the shortest standing structure to the tallest, measure and call out the heights. Identify the winning team.
Teams reflect on how they did: Have teams sit together and discuss their process. Introduce the questions below to help guide them in their reflection:
- How did we work as a group?
- What role did I take? How did I contribute? Is there anything I held off from doing? Why?
- Who took the leadership in the group? How did it manifest in different moments?
- What did I learn about myself and my behavior? About other people and their behavior? About the behavior of groups?
- What insights can I take from this experience that I could apply in other contexts?
Wrap up with the insights of the challenge:
Show the Marshmallow Challenge TED Talk or just refer to the talk and describe some of the key insights of the marshmallow challenge:
Kids do better than business students: On virtually every measure of innovation, kindergarteners create taller and more interesting structures.
Prototyping matters: The reason kids do better than business school students is that kids spend more time playing and prototyping. They naturally start with the marshmallow and then add in the sticks. The business school students leave the marshmallow for the end, spending a vast amount of time planning and executing on the plan, with almost no time to fix the design once they put the marshmallow on top.
The Marshmallow is a metaphor for the hidden assumptions of a project: The assumption in the Marshmallow Challenge is that marshmallows are light and fluffy and easily supported by the spaghetti sticks. When you actually try to build the structure, the marshmallows don’t seem so light. The lesson in the marshmallow challenge is that we need to identify the assumptions in our project—the real needs, the cost of the product, the duration of the service—and test them early and often. That’s the mechanism that leads to effective innovation.
Experience a lean approach to risk management and the value of continuous experimentation – waste reduction, and is recommended for teams new to agile.