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Think You Are More Collaborative than Kindergartners? Take the Marshmallow Challenge and Find Out

Posted By Administration, Friday, June 20, 2014
Originally posted on 3/12/2014

What’s your collaborative marshmallow—the seemingly simple but actually complex challenge of collaborating very quickly, with a limited set of resources, to build something together? On Monday afternoon, nearly 30 alliance executives at the 2014 ASAP Global Alliance Summit bravely took "The Marshmallow Challenge: A Competition about Collaboration." The tools of this very hands-on preconference workshop? Twenty sticks of spaghetti, a yard of string, a yard of tape, scissors—and a marshmallow.

Monday's challenge was led by Jeff Shuman, CSAP and principal of The Rhythm of Business, who has conducted this workshop more than 30 times with alliance teams around the world. These teams find the challenge a useful tool to kick off partner meetings. Participants break into teams of four, then work together to assemble the spaghetti into a structure that can support a marshmallow on top. The tallest structure (that doesn’t collapse under the weight of the marshmallow) is the winner. It’s surprisingly hard to do—on Monday, the winning team built a four-legged, 18-inch-high tripod structure, beating out several other structures of 12 to 15 inches in height. My team's structure was taller--for about three seconds before it collapsed.

Afterwards, workshop participants watched a TED Talks video describing the challenge. Turns out that there’s a wide disparity in the performance of different types of participants. CEOs, for instance, are not typically successful—unless executive assistants join their teams. Recently graduated MBAs perform very poorly. The best collaborators though? Five-year-old children (Shuman has tried it out with his grandchildren) turn out to be very effective collaborative engineers—and consistently build structures far taller than most alliance managers.

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