Lessons for MBAs from Little People about Collaboration and Creativity

There are some significant lessons we can learn from little people about the nature of collaboration by teams as shown in this TED video by Tom Wujec. If you are a bit cocky because you have an MBA, then it is time for you to reach for a Kleenex especially if you are competitive.

Imagine a challenge where different types of teams collaborate. Each team is given rudimentary materials including 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow. The goal is to build the highest free-standing structure with the marshmallow on top in eighteen minutes.

Which team do you think collaborates most effectively and wins? Would you be surprised to learn that recent graduates of business school performed the worst?

Who performs the best? It seems that recent graduates of kindergarten produce the most interesting and the tallest structures. I found this incredibly amusing and a bit distressing since I have an (MBA) Master of Business Administration.

Do you remember the program, “Are you smarter than a fifth grader?” I knew for certain that this was a challenge I should avoid. However, now the bar has been lowered and it appears that kindergarteners are better equipped to handle creative challenges than I am with my MBA.

Unlike business students, kids do not spend their precious and limited time jockeying for power.
Business students are trained to find the one correct answer. They implement their plan and build a single structure within the eighteen minute time limit. A crisis ensues when the marshmallow collapses.

Kindergarteners build successive prototypes always keeping the marshmallow on top using an iterative process. They immediately start building a prototype and then when it does not work, they make changes and build another prototype and keep repeating this process. The kids use instant feedback to learn what works and what does not work.

I believe in careful planning before implementing, so I can see where the children would definitely have an advantage over me. I am also quite guilty of often assuming a leadership role, also known as being power hungry!

Mr. Tom Wujec, says, “Capacity to play in prototype is essential.” He concludes, “Design demands the very best of our thinking, our feeling, and our doing to the challenge at task.”

What happens when teams are offered a $10,000 prize if they build the highest marshmallow structure? High stakes negatively impacted team performance and none of the teams were able to complete a successful prototype.

When teams are taught the value of prototyping and a trained facilitator is introduced, performance increased significantly.

Tom Wujec concludes, “This marshmallow challenge helps teams that are collaborating to identify the hidden assumptions. Teams have a shared experience, a common language, a common stance to build the right prototype.”

I found it fascinating that kindergarten kids significantly outperformed the business school graduates. However, there were several other surprises too that involved the performance of CEOs on the marshmallow challenge. Here is a hint; it seems that executive administrators are essential to team collaboration.

Remember, whenever it is time for your team to collaborate, use an iterative process and build multiple prototypes. If you do not know how to do this, then go find a kindergartener and watch them at play.

Do you agree with these findings of the marshmallow challenge? What other thoughts do you have about this process?


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