Have you ever been outshone by a bunch of kindergarten children? Well, business school students, lawyers and even CEOs of major corporations have suffered just such a fate. If I tell you this was in a marshmallow challenge you may well be assuming I mean the game where you see how many marshmallows you can put in your mouth at the same time and still speak, in which case of course a 3 year old with no fears of embarassing themselves may well fare better than a middle aged professional in a business suit.
But no, this is the marshmallow challenge introduced by Peter Skillman to a TED audience. As an approach to introducing change it seems to fly in the face of conventional wisdom, and it is remarkably liberating and refreshing.
If you can spare just a little under 7 minutes do watch the TED talk that explains how and why kindergarten children are so much smarter than their elders: http://marshmallowchallenge.com/TED_Talk.html
Essentially the marshmallow challenge asks teams to build a structure out of spaghtetti (uncooked!) tape and string that wil support a marshmallow. Simple eh?!
So here’s the thing. Because it is so drummed into us to plan everything we do before we start doing it (‘fail to prepare, prepare to fail,’ the 7 P’s etc), most teams made up of professionals spend the majority of their alloted time discussing, planning, looking at different options etc. Then someone will build a structure, and at the 59th second of the last minute the marshmallow will be plopped on the top, normally followed by sounds of disappointment and breaking strands of spaghetti.
Kindergarten children on the other hand haven’t read the business books or attended the business process training courses. Instead they just have a go. They try making something then put the marshmallow on top. When it crashes, they try something else, then something else again, and again, and again. So by the time their allocated time for the exercise is up, they have tried out 4 or 5 different models. Apparently they not only produce the biggest structures for their marshmallow, but also the most interesting ones.
So, why am I bothering to write about this in a blog? Well, Tom Wujec who gives the Ted talk says the reason business students do so badly is that they have been trained to find the single right answer to a problem. So this is what they look for, and they don’t move until they think they have found it. Kindergarten kids on the other hand just get stuck in and have a go. They undoubtedly get it wrong several times before they start to get it right, and even having got it ‘right’ they can keep going till they find an even better model. The business community on the other hand were so focused on being right first time, that they had no time to refine or rethink their plans when they didn’t succeed.
The kindergarten kids may not have come up with the biggest, strongest or ‘best’ structure that is technically possible to support a marshmallow, but hey, they at least ended up with a structure and had lots of fun along the way. The ‘men in suits’ would only move when they thought they had the right answer, and ended up with nothing.
And the moral is…. well that’s up to you. From a business process perspective this is all about prototyping – or piloting – try something small, then refine it and try again, and keep going in this iterative manner till you get something that suits your requirements.
I like to think though that this is also about our choice of attitude to life. Wait for everything to be perfect before we give it a go, or just crack on with stuff and see what happens? Some people naturally do this – they may crash and burn a lot, but each time they do, they learn, and (hopefully) input that learning into their next attempt. And along the way they are gaining experience, and living life.
For others though, life is something that has been 100% certain to be the right thing/done in the right way before it can be embraced and embarked on. Fear of getting something wrong, of the marshmallow falling off, is too great a risk. And ironically, when the time limit is up and you have to move, you get your one shot at whatever it is and the chances of it succeeding are far slimmer than if you’d already had 4 goes and had been refining your approach each time.
So, if you’re too afraid to apply for that job, have that conversation, take up that new sport, say yes to that challenge – just ask yourself, what would a kindergarten child do? After all, the marshmallow can take a lot of knocks before it becomes inedible!