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 12 or more participants, at least enough people for 3 teams of 4 people, as there’s a competitive element to the challenge! (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.

Take a look at what a spaghetti and marshmallow tower might look.

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 challenge with a simple ‘debrief’ of the activity. This is how the whole flow works:

  1. Set-up the challenge (5-10 mins)
  2. The teams work on the challenge (18 mins)
  3. Time’s up! Select and award the winner (5-10 mins)
  4. Debrief (15-20 mins)

In total this spaghetti and marshmallow challenge takes about an hour, perhaps 90 mins with a bigger team or when there’s more discussion in the debrief.

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?

Summarize any key points that come out of the discussion.

Prepare to show your everyone the video. Explain that this exercise has been done with many different teams, from kindergarten kids to CEO, all over the world. The video has some useful insights that will add to their learning (mention that it’s only 6-7 mins long). Ask them to consider key points during the video and be ready to share their thoughts.

After you have shown them the video, ask:

  • What were the key points you took away from that video? (Encourage everyone to share, this post on types of questions will help.)
  • How does this apply to the work we do? (Encourage everyone to share and discuss.)
  • What will you do differently, in future, as a result of this exercise?

The last couple of questions are where you really bring the discussion back to work and how they can improve their performance in future as a result of the exercise. You can pick up on the points in subsequent 1-1 discussions.

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.

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!

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