Problem Solving, One Marshmallow at a Time

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So you have a problem. And you need a solution. Where do you start?

One approach involves 20 sticks of spaghetti, tape, string, and one (just one) marshmallow. Say what?

It’s known as the “Marshmallow Challenge,” and it’s part of a required course called “Problem Finding, Problem Solving.” The class is taught by Senior Lecturer Sara Beckman, and is described in a Poets & Quants article by John Byrne. The course draws on research done in the areas of critical and systems thinking, and creative problem solving.

The challenge requires students, in teams, to work with the few resources at their disposal to build the tallest – let’s call it – structure, with the lone marshmallow placed at the very top. The exercise calls for creativity, teamwork, and urgency. Did I mention teams only have 18 minutes to complete the challenge? Lest you think this exercise is pointless, consider this: business leaders have told us (repeatedly) that in today’s rapidly changing business world (and there’s no impending slowdown on the horizon) employees need to be able to work together to come up with creative solutions, sometimes with incomplete data – all while urgent deadlines loom overhead. No pressure. The Marshmallow Challenge may present an exaggerated scenario, but all the hallmarks of real life problem solving are embedded in it.

While the exercise offers students an opportunity to be innovative, the challenge itself isn’t. “We’re not claiming that there is anything new in what we’re doing, but our experience is that MBA students are not exposed to a formal representation of how to think about problems,” said Beckman. And while it’s more than likely that students have had to problem-solve in real life situations prior to enrolling in their business program, Beckman says students are not necessarily taught how to frame a problem before considering potential solutions. “Part of being an innovative leader is being able to frame a problem in interesting ways and to see what that problem really is before you jump into solving it.”

After the challenge is over, Beckman breaks it down for students. Teams learn that the key to forming a structure that won’t fall over immediately – and could potentially win – is to test “their assumptions continuously” until they hit on a sturdy version that won’t be quick to topple over. Debating various building approaches doesn’t actually build anything, which is why less talking and more testing is critical. Beckman also reveals, after the fact, that kindergartners are much better at the challenge (by a lot) than MBA students. Hmm.

In his TED Talk on the challenge, Autodesk Fellow Tom Wujec also confirms that MBA graduates are not so awesome at the challenge: “They lie, they cheat, they get distracted, and then they produce really lame structures.” Yikes. “None of the [kindergartner]kids spend any time trying to be CEO of ‘Spaghetti, Inc.’ They don’t spend time jockeying for power.” But there’s one more cogent reason for why five-year-olds best MBAs at the challenge: “business school students are trained to do the single best thing – rather than try many things and iterate along the way,” according to Beckman. Wujec takes this further in his Ted Talk. He explains that business graduates commonly leave the marshmallow for last in their construction approach. “When they put the marshmallow on the top they run out of time, and what happens? It’s a crisis.” Wujec contrasts this to the kindergartners, who start their construction process with the marshmallow first, and then proceed with creating several prototypes during their allotted time – always with the marshmallow still perched at the top – until they settle on a final version.

Most of us are used to barreling into problem solving mode at the onset of a thorny issue, especially with urgent deadlines prompting us into arriving at a solution as quickly as possible. But inserting a step in the process to frame the issue first (and leverage the diverse perspectives of team members), ensures that everyone has a good grasp of the crux of the problem. More importantly, it speeds up the rate at which teams form potential solutions (not just one) until they arrive at the one they are most confident about – with or without a marshmallow on top.

Photo courtesy of IDEO Postcards.

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