What Can Marshmallows Teach Us About Strategy?


Building a tower out of spaghetti and marshmallows may teach us more about strategy than we expect. Kyu Kang, Associate Consultant, explores how these lessons can inform the process of strategy development.

You have 18 minutes, 20 sticks of spaghetti, tape, string, and one marshmallow – your task is to work in a small group and use these materials to build the tallest free-standing structure with a marshmallow on top. You can choose to join one of four groups – kindergarteners, recent business school graduates,  CEOs and executive admins, or CEOs only – which do you pick to maximize your chances of success? You jump in and the clock starts.

Time! Let’s see how the groups perform:

1st place – CEOs and executive admins

2nd place – Kindergarteners

3rd place – CEOs

4th place – Recent business school graduates

In the Marshmallow Challenge, kindergarteners regularly outperform groups of recent business school graduates and CEOs. How can that be? Is it their proficiency with arts and crafts, or that their young minds overflow with creativity? No, the truth is that kindergarteners perform better because:

  1. They collaborate
  2. They iterate
  3. They keep their focus on the marshmallow

Most people, and recent business gradutes especially, spend a large portion of their 18 minutes jockeying for power and leadership in the group, planning and sketching out the perfect plan, hastily constructing a structure, and tossing their marshmallow on top at the very end, hoping their creation holds. Quite often, it doesn’t, and the weight of the marshmallow topples their structure. Sound familiar?

Kindergarteners on the other hand, don’t have power hierarchies or biases about who is fit to lead the group or contribute an idea. They also don’t try to come up with the perfect plan. They jump in together, starting with the marshmallow, and experiment with different ways to build and support a standing structure with the materials they have. They take turns contributing ideas and if they mess up, they try again, always with the marshmallow at top of mind.

In strategy development, the marshmallow is your mission, your vision, your organizational identity – the top of your strategy pyramid. All other organizational decisions and strategies should be built with this marshmallow in mind. But this alone is not enough – in order to truly succeed, your leadership and staff must learn to work collaboratively and to iterate on solutions, understanding that it is unreasonable to expect that executive leadership alone can effectively craft and execute on one perfect strategic plan. It’s about learning to be adaptive, and building systems and processes that encourage and enable shared work.

This is not to say you have to resort to childish techniques and kindergarten-level social skills. I didn’t mention the highest performing of the four groups – CEOs and executive admins. It turns out, when you take the knowledge and experience of the CEOs, along with the facilitation and management skills of an executive admin, this group tends to significantly outperform the other three. Even with every intention to be collaborative, nonprofit leaders and strategic planning committees often fail to recognize and benefit from the expertise of other staff, stakeholders, and members. There is still the tendency to default to the C-suite and defer to those who fit traditional archetypes of power and knowledge. A diversity of skills and perspectives fills gaps in strength and builds a group’s capacity. While homogenous groups may seem to have less conflict and make decisions faster (think of echo chambers), they are less creative and effective.

So next time you are struggling with a strategic challenge, focus on the marshmallow, bring in your diverse stakeholders, and don’t fixate so much on the perfect plan because there is no such thing.