Step One: Organise a Meeting

Find a 45-60 minute window where your team can fully concentrate on the challenge. Marshmallow challenge has been organized for teams as few as four people to groups with nearly a thousand people. Also, provide each team with a stable table and, if possible, have the same number of people on each team.

Step Two: Arrange Gears for Each Team

Before the challenge, prepare marshmallow challenge gear for each team. This gear should contain one yard of masking tape, twenty sticks of spaghetti, one marshmallow, and one yard of string. Preferably have them arranged inside a paper bag; this adds a surprise factor to the challenge and makes it easier for teams to share or hide the content in the bag.

  • 20 sticks of spaghetti: It goes without saying, but the spaghetti should be uncooked. You should use the regular spaghetti instead of the thicker Fettuccini or thinner spaghettini variants.
  • 1 yard of string: The string should be reasonably flexible and easy to break with one hand. For stronger strings, you can include a pair of scissors.
  • 1 yard of masking tape: A standard masking tape should do the job. You should consider setting the masking tape aside on the table or a chair, as they may likely tangle with the other contents in the bag.
  • 1 marshmallow: Any marshmallow brand should be fine as long as they are the standard size, measuring around an inch and a half across. Jumbo or mini marshmallows don’t work very well, so avoid those. Also, use fresh marshmallows as stale ones are likely to not have the same lightness.
  • Paper bag (optional): A letter-size manila envelopes or regular size lunch bags should do the trick.

You should also have the following tools nearby as they are also useful instruct, drive and judge the exercise:

  • Stopwatch or countdown timer: 18 minutes is the recommended time for the marshmallow challenge. Any other time slightly longer or shorter defeats the purpose of the challenge. You should use a stopwatch or, better still, project an online countdown timer on a screen so every team can see how much time they’ve got.
  • Measuring tape: You would need a measuring tape, preferably a retractable measuring tape, to measure the height of each team’s structure at the end of the challenge.
  • Sound System (optional): For more effect, you can deliver the marshmallow challenge presentation using a video projector and, also get a sound system for music during the challenge. Aim to curate a playlist that is exactly 18 minutes long so that the end of the last song coincides with the conclusion of the challenge.

Step Three: Properly Communicate the Objectives

Ensure that each team understands the objectives and instructions of the Marshmallow Challenge. Better still, prepare a presentation beforehand to visually communicate the rules and further emphasize the instructions of the challenge:

  • Build the tallest freestanding structure: The team that builds the tallest structure measured from the surface of the table to the top of the marshmallow wins the challenge. The structure shouldn’t hang or lean on any other objects.
  • The whole marshmallow must be on top: Teams are expected to place the marshmallows at the top of the free-standing structure. Any team that intentionally destroys, hides, or eats its marshmallow is automatically disqualified :).
  • No restrictions on gear usage: Each team can choose to use as many or as few of the ingredients provided. The team can use as many spaghetti sticks as they choose or use only a single line of tape. However, the paper bags can’t be used for the construction.
  • Use bits of tape, strings, or spaghetti: Teams can break their spaghetti and cut their string or tape into bits to make new structures.
  • Challenge time is 18 minutes: All teams must stop working on their structure at the 18-minute mark. Any team that attempts to support or hold their structure at the end of the challenge will be disqualified.
  • Ensure that the rules are clearly understood by everybody: Ideally, you should only repeat the rules a few times. Ask the teams if there are any doubts before you begin.

Step Four: Begin the Challenge

Reiterate that teams only have 18 minutes and then start the countdown timer and music to flag off the challenge.

  • Observe and walk the room: Notice how teams get along and peep how they build and innovate their structure.
  • Draw the teams’ attention to time: Audibly countdown the time at specific intervals. You can call when it’s halfway through (9 minutes), 5 minutes, 3 minutes, a minute, and a final 15 seconds countdown.
  • Comment on the progress of each team: Raise the bar by encouraging and subtly praising teams that make notable progress. Build healthy competition by inviting teams to take a peek at each other’s work.
  • Emphasize the fact that holders will be disqualified: Some teams will be tempted to hold or support their structure at the end of the challenge. This is often done in a desperate bid to support the last marshmallow they placed on their structure before time ran out. The structure that wins needs to be free-standing and stable.

Step Five: Conclude the Challenge

Once the timer goes off, tell everyone in the room to take a seat away from their structure so everyone can see what each team has done. Usually, about half the teams will have successfully built a standing structure.

  • Measure each structure: Ideally, from the shortest to the tallest, and call out the heights as you measure. You should have someone record each score for all teams to see.
  • Find the winner: Decide the winning team and ensure that they get treated to rousing applause and a prize (if plans were made for one).
  • Conclude with lessons and objectives of the Marshmallow Challenge: You can deliver a presentation if you had one prepared or just round things off with some key observable lessons.
  • Kids excel at this challenge more than business students: On almost every form of innovation, children have always found a way to create taller and more intriguing structures.
  • Prototyping is crucial: Kids and kindergarten tend to outsmart business school students because they spend more time prototyping and playing. Kids will often start by sticking the marshmallows in the sticks and build up from there. Conversely, business school students spend most of the time coming up with a plan. Eventually, they realize that they don’t have enough time to finetune the design when the marshmallows go on top.
  • The Marshmallow challenge exposes the hidden assumptions of a project: The common thought at the beginning of the challenge is that marshmallows are light enough to be supported by spaghetti sticks. However, once you start building the structure, you notice that marshmallows aren’t as light as you initially thought. The marshmallow challenge highlights the need to be aware of the assumptions in our projects – the cost of the product, customer preferences, duration of the project – and test them out as soon and as frequently as possible. This is the mechanism that drives innovation.