The Spaghetti and Marshmallow Theory of Team-Building

It is part of human nature for people to make assumptions about everything. Sometimes our assumptions are accurate, but often not. You may feel defeated or embarrassed or foolish when discovering our assumptions do not reflect reality. Instead, I hope that you can experience excitement and a sense of wonder when confronted with a different reality.

Well, this proclivity for making assumptions applies as you know to academic and scientific theories. One of my enduring and ongoing professional interests is in the theory and practice of team-building. I recently had the honor of delivering a presentation on team-building. In preparing for this remote talk I read and reviewed studies about team-building.

The following is a condensation of a story told by Daniel Coyle in his book, The Culture Club (Bantam Books, 2018):

Around 2016, a designer and engineer held a competition to find why certain teams “add up to be greater than the sum of their parts, while others add up to less.” He assembled a series of 4-person groups at Stanford, University of California, and University of Tokyo. He challenged the groups to build the tallest structure possible using only tape, string, uncooked spaghetti, and one standard-size large marshmallow. The contest had one rule. The marshmallow had to end up on top.

Business students made up some of the teams. Other teams consisted of kindergartners.

According to the researcher, “the business students got right to work.” They took a strategic approach and engaged in thoughtful, insightful dialogue. He characterized their approach could as “professional, rational, and intelligent.” Ultimately their planning process led to the selection of one primary strategy. “They divided up the tasks and started building.”

Meanwhile, the kindergartners did not strategize. They didn’t ask questions, propose options, or hone ideas. The researcher states, “their was barely any talking at all. “ They stood very close to each other. Their actions were not smooth or organized. “They would literally just grab materials from each other (not in an antagonistic fashion but rather an urgent one) and start building.” When they spoke their dialogue would be in “short bursts.” The researcher notes, “their entire technique might be described as trying a bunch of stuff together.”

Most of us would make the assumption that the business school students would achieve a superior result. They possess the intelligence, skills, and experience to achieve a superior result.

This assumption would be wrong.

“In dozens of trials kindergartners build structures that averaged twenty-six inches tall, while business school students built structures that averaged less than ten inches.”

You’re probably uttering out loud the same exclamation I made: “how the heck did that happen?” Coyle reports the following: what is important to focus on is the interaction between group members, not individual skills. The business students, Coyle argues, spent an inordinate amount of time in subtle competition with each other. Their attention was so focused on trying to figure out the “rules” for a group process that they failed to grasp the “essence of the problem.” They completely missed that the marshmallow is heavy, the spaghetti is hard to secure. Their initial building efforts collapsed and they ran out of time.

On the other hand, the kindergartners are not competing for status. “They stand shoulder to shoulder and work energetically with each other. They move quickly, spotting problems and offering help. They experiment, take risks, and notice outcomes.” This process guides them in the direction of effective solutions.

The researcher concluded, “…kindergartners succeed not because they are smarter but because they work together in a smarter way. They are tapping into a simple and powerful method in which a group of ordinary people can create a performance far beyond the sum of their parts.”

On an intellectual level, many of you may endorse, based on your personal and professional experience, this theory. We might all assert that superior performance emanates from a group where the “sum was greater than the parts.” Still, how many of us would have predicted the kindergartners surpassing the business students? And how refreshing to have assumptions shaken and stirred, including when it comes to team-building.

I have had over thirty year’s experience in assisting management personnel in a variety of non-profit organizations. I address team-building issues. And, as here, I am often in my consulting work learning new information related to team-building theory and practice. How invigorating!

I hope you take with you the practical lesson: that teams can be greater than the sum or their parts, or less. And that it’s not always experience and skill alone that make a great team. I’d love to help you find the challenges within your team and help your team improve. Talk to me and let’s find you some team-building solutions.

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