The spaghetti and marshmallow tower challenge: fun learning with your team!

The spaghetti and marshmallow tower challenge is a fun activity for you and your team, and it has some profound learning points too.

It works best if there are 9 or more participants, at least enough people for 3 teams of 3 people, as there’s a competitive element to the challenge! (If you have a smaller team consider using this activity to build collaboration with other teams too.)

It can be run with hundreds of people, if you have enough space, and enough spaghetti!

The spaghetti and marshmallow tower challenge

First, let’s outline the challenge. Each team has:

  • 20 sticks of spaghetti
  • One yard of tape
  • One yard of string
  • A marshmallow

The challenge is simple, just build the tallest free-standing structure possible (oh, the marshmallow must be on top!). You have 18 minutes.

What can be learnt from this challenge

What makes this interesting is that Tom Wujec has run dozens of these spaghetti and marshmallow tower challenges across the world, with a variety of different participants.

In his TED talk, he talks about the insights the challenge reveals, regarding the nature of collaboration and success.

He describes how two things typically happen at the start of the challenge.

  • First, participants, orientate themselves to the task (talking about it, laying out the materials, clarifying the rules).
  • Second, the team members spend time jockeying for power and influence.

I won’t give away all the insights, take a look at the video:

How to structure the activity with your team

You can help your team to take the learning from the spaghetti and marshmallow tower challenge with a simple ‘debrief’ of the activity. This is how the whole flow works:

  1. Set up the challenge  
  2. The teams working on the challenge
  3. Recognize the winning team
  4. Individual reflection + group discussion
  5. Wrap-up

In total this spaghetti and marshmallow challenge takes about 90 mins.

As the teams are working on the challenge take time to observe and make some mental notes regarding the behaviors you’re seeing. Questions to ask yourself:

  • Is the team really listening to each other and holding coherent conversations, or interrupting each other and jumping from topic to topic?
  • Is everyone able to contribute, or are some team members being marginalized?
  • Is anyone emerging as a ‘leader’ of the group, and if so, what behaviors are driving that?
  • Are the team members building on each other’s ideas?
  • Is the team experimenting with alternative approaches to success?
  • Is the team managing time, or not?

You can use these observations to add richness to the debrief. Do this after everyone else has contributed to the discussion. Let the participants learn from their own observations as much as possible, but add yours if they have missed anything.

How to ‘debrief’ the activity with your team

Start the debrief with some simple, open questions to get people talking:

  • What did you enjoy about that challenge?
  • What did you find challenging?

Talk to one or two of the teams who did less well (you can smile and tease them, it’s still lighthearted learning!):

  • What did you do that helped you succeed?
  • What did you do that got in the way of you succeeding?

Talk to one or two of the teams who did well:

  • What did you do that helped you succeed?
  • What did you do that got in the way of you succeeding?

As the teams are talking, they’ll be mentioning all kinds of things. Let them talk, and then gently orientate them towards the team dynamics: “Thinking about how you worked as a team, what were you doing that helped you succeed?“. Ask for examples and make sure that the whole team is contributing to the discussion.

Summarize any key points and differences that come out of the discussion.

The spaghetti and marshmallow tower challenge in summary

The spaghetti and marshmallow tower challenge is a fun exercise, it also offers profound insights into how to collaborate and succeed as a team.

These facilitation techniques will help you incorporate the challenge into a longer workshop.

Have fun with the challenge, have fun with the judging, have fun celebrating the winning team. Let the energy and excitement subside a little, then discuss and reflect on what has been learnt.

Spend a little time asking the debrief questions, watching the video, and reinforcing the key messages.

It’s about 60-90 mins, perfect for a ‘learning lunchtime’ or Friday afternoon activity. Have fun with it!