Byron's Babbles

Leading A Community of Experimentation

Mike Fleisch Graphic of Our Marshmallow Challenge Discussion

Imagine a room with 15 aspiring teacher leaders, divided into five teams. Each team gets 20 sticks of spaghetti, a yard of string, a yard of masking tape, and a single marshmallow. They have 18 minutes to build a free-standing structure that will enable the marshmallow to rest on top. This is the so-called “marshmallow challenge”, a staple of many leadership trainings and design schools. It’s a great way to teach the benefits of rapid model-building and prototyping. Our team at Hoosier Academies used it in our January leadership development retreat yesterday of our Focused Leader Academy.

So, here is a generalization of what happened: They spent the first few minutes with someone establishing the leadership role, dominance, or trying really hard to be super collaborative. In a few teams’ cases one emergee as a leader. The next few minutes were devoted to planning. Construction began, usually with less than eight minutes left on the clock. Then, with about a minute to go, someone placed the marshmallow on top of the beautiful tower, and….it collapsed – failure. 

Kindergarteners and engineers do the best on this activity (see graph above). We decided that the kindergarteners win because kids don’t vacillate; they simply try something, and if it doesn’t work, they try again, and again, and again. Think about it… young children love to iterate. They are very curious. 

We concluded, in our post-challenge discussion (see picture for our Mike Fleisch graphic of the discussion), that engineers are good a this because they plan, build things, and are resourceful every day. In other words, engineers are quicker to understand how the spaghetti, tape, string, and marshmallow become a system together.

The big takeaway from our teams yesterday, however, was the idea of “failing quickly.” We are all familiar with the phrase “fail fast”, but what does that really mean? And how do you put it into practice? Failing fast isn’t about the big issues, it’s about the little ones. It’s an approach development and creation that embraces lots of little experiments and iterations with the mindset that some will work and grow and others will fail and die. And, that’s okay. 

Develop a community of experimentation, be willing to try stuff, do it quickly. But if it’s not working, be willing to fail fast and pivot.

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