The Marshmallow Challenge is a game for learning about innovation, creativity, teams, collaboration, as well as the value of early prototyping and incremental delivery. Part of the real power of the game is in helping people to identify the hidden assumptions that every project has, and to recognize the value in diversity of team membership.
I came across the Marshmallow Challenge last year, but I didn’t get a chance to play it until I attended the Play4Agile Conference in Germany earlier this year, where Michael Sahota facilitated a great session one night in the hotel bar (which was full of conference attendees, all taking part). Since then I’ve run the Marshmallow Challenge several times.
Running the Marshmallow Challenge Game
For each team, you need
- 20 sticks of spaghetti
- 1 meter of tape
- 1 meter of string
- 1 marshmallow
- 1 large envelope (optional)
You will also need one measuring tape.
I use my iPod and speakers to provide a soundtrack while the game is in play.
Just to add to the mystery I like to prepare in advance the envelopes containing the spaghetti sticks and string, and hand out the envelopes before explaining what the game is.
Playing the Game
- Hand out the envelopes to each team. I ask them to wait until everyone has one before opening them.
- Explain the objective of building a tower.
- Explain the rules.
- I often hold back the marshmallow until this point. Up until now they know they have to build a tower. Adding a light, fluffy marshmallow is no big deal, right?
- Everybody starts building their towers at the same time.
- I like to play music during the game play, something upbeat to add to the atmosphere. I have a few playlists created that are approximately 18 minutes long.
- Repeat the rules out loud a few times during the session. People will ask for clarification anyway.
- Draw attention to teams that are doing particularly well (or poorly) – create a little friendly competition.
- The winner is the team that has the tallest free-standing structure at the end of the 18 minutes. So, if, for example, a team decides to stop building after 10 minutes, their tower must still be standing at the end of the game.
There are more detailed instructions over on the Marshmallow Challenge home page.
Review and Wrap up
The review is where the reflection happens. Think of it as a retrospective of sorts.
Where to use it
I’ve used this at project kick-offs, at the start of release planning sessions, in retrospectives. You can use it in just about any situation where you have a group of people who want to gain insights into working together.
In this picture, I am running a Marshmallow Challenge with 50+ people at the kick-off for a new project.
The winner that day was an impressive 34.5 inches.
Here is a TED Talk video by Tim Wujec describing the Marshmallow Challenge:
Bringing Your Work Home With You
I’ve played the Marshmallow Challenge at home too. My kids were with me when I was shopping for supplies, so of course they wanted to know that the marshmallows were for. When I told them they were for a game, they wanted to play too. We had a full house that night, as their cousins were visiting too, so we had enough for three teams, slightly bending the rules on numbers. They were quick to catch on to the value of early prototyping and working as a team. It was a lot of fun – one of the better ways to bring your work home with you.