15 Nov 2012

Marshmallow Challenge

You may have played a similar version of this game before. Your group is given a bag of uncooked spaghetti, some tapes and strings, and a marshmallow. Your job is to build a tower with spaghetti to support the marshmallow. The group that builds the tallest tower wins.

When Peter Skillman analyzed the results, he noticed something interesting. Somehow, business school graduates consistently performed worse than fresh kindergarten graduates. On average, their towers were 10 inches shorter than those built by children.

What happened? It turns out that business school graduates did what we are all so familiar with – they held meetings. They formulated the best plan. When there were just a few minutes left, they started building their best design. At the last second, the chairman of the group put the marshmallow at the top, and the tower collapsed.

What about the children? They have never heard about meetings, agenda and brainstorming. All kindergarten groups started building right away. Although their towers collapsed time and again, they had plenty of time to try another structure. In the end, more groups would at least have a standing piece.

So, is it at odds with my previous advocation that we should spend much time planning a study? In my opinion, it really depends on whether you have enough information to make decisions. If you do not know anything, pretending you can develop the best plan would not bring you anywhere. This should be time for trial and error and gathering information. Empty talks without execution is, after all, empty talks.

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