How are Kindergarteners More Talented than MBAs?

The Key to Innovation Success.

You have twenty sticks of uncooked spaghetti, a yard of string, a yard of masking tape, and a marshmallow. You can break up the spaghetti, string, or masking tape however you need. Your challenge is to work with a team of your peers and build the tallest tower that can hold up the weight of the marshmallow.

You have eighteen minutes. And you’re competing with teams of CEOs, lawyers, and business school students. Oh, and a team of kindergarteners.

Now, which group do you think has the best chance of winning?

Industrial designer Peter Skillman and Dennis Boyle, a founding member of IDEO, developed this “marshmallow challenge” to test creativity in groups. Tom Wujec later conducted over seventy marshmallow challenge workshops between 2006 and 2010. The results were both surprising and consistent. As Skillman described it,

Kindergarteners’ towers average 27 inches high. CEOs build theirs to 21 inches, lawyers average 15, and business school students tend to come in last at 10 inches.

As surprising as these results might be, the question we should be asking isn’t how the kindergarteners did so well. It’s why did the adults do so poorly?

When these business school students and lawyers were in kindergarten, they could have built a 27-inch tower as well. How did they lose this ability? More importantly, how do they get it back?

Don’t Just Stand There, Build Something.

It’s easy to look down on the business school students. After all, a group of kindergarteners embarrassed them. Yet many of us repeat their same mistakes every day.

When the clock started, the adult teams spent their time planning and talking. They argued over ideas. They created power struggles on how to move forward. Then, after five or so minutes, one person started building and everyone else fell into a management role.

The kindergarteners just started building. From the beginning, all of them started to test out different ideas. They learned from each other and collaborated. They didn’t set up plans. They didn’t assign roles and responsibilities. There was no manager. They just started building.

According to Wujec’s research, kindergarteners tried putting the marshmallow on their tower an average of five times, with the first attempt happening before five minutes had passed. They made towers early and as those buckled under the weight, they built more. Where everyone else spent time talking, kindergarteners spent time acting.

Business school students typically put their marshmallow on the tower once, in the final minute. Upon realizing that they underestimated the weight, there was no time to adapt.

As I said, it’s easy to look down on the business school students. Yet how many of us repeat these same mistakes? When a new project starts, what’s our first action? Hold a meeting? Develop plans? Demand a comprehensive cost/benefit assessment?

Rarely is it to simply start building.

The Planned Innovation Rarely Happens.

In all my years of managing innovation, I’ve never seen a project, initiative, or idea work out as planned. More importantly, the great ideas were rarely great from the beginning. They often started out as something completely different. They only developed into a success through experimentation and collaboration.

And yet, when most companies try to do something innovative, they expect it to follow a predictable path. They think everyone should simply plan creativity. They want new, transformative results by running the same old, tired processes.

Performing to plan becomes more important than driving innovation. Those trying to innovate spend all of their time defending early assumptions that didn’t pan out. They spend all of their time planning and meeting instead of doing.

Before long, people default into work that’s easy to plan. And nothing’s easier to plan than derivative work. As the trailblazing physicist David Bohm wrote in his 1968 essay, On Creativity,

“If one will not try anything until he is assured that he will not make a mistake in whatever he does, he will never be able to learn anything new at all. And this is more or less the state in which most people are. Such a fear of making a mistake is added to one’s habits of mechanical perception in terms of preconceived ideas and learning only for specific utilitarian purposes. All of these combine to make a person who cannot perceive what is new and who is therefore mediocre rather than original.”

I don’t mean to say we shouldn’t plan. We should. It’s important for people to have a vision and strategy of where they want to go. But there’s only so much you can control when you’re trying to do something new.

We can’t plan away all of our uncertainty. And we can’t lay out a foolproof plan to accomplish something that’s never been done before.

When it comes to innovation, I’ve often found that people who spend weeks planning are wrong just as often as those who jump in and get started quickly. The difference is that the planners come to this realization later and have less time to adapt.

They realize that the marshmallow’s too heavy in the eighteenth minute, instead of the fifth.

Embrace Experimentation Early.

In The Hard Thing About Hard Things, Ben Horowitz describes why it’s difficult to bring big company executives into small startups. The chief problem is what Horowitz calls a rhythm mismatch. As he describes it,

“Your executive has been conditioned to wait for emails to come in, wait for the phone to ring, and wait for the meetings to get scheduled. In your company, he’ll be waiting a long time.”

Most employees operate similar to this executive. They’re input-driven. They spend their time responding to requests and following processes. They rely on the inertia of the organization to carry them forward.

They prioritize talking over action.

Startups and smaller companies can’t do this. There’s no readily available inertia to keep the company moving. Nothing happens unless their people make it happen. They need output-driven people if they’re going to survive.

They don’t wait, they do. They don’t spend weeks planning and meeting, they experiment. Otherwise they’d quickly run out of money while everyone’s sitting in a conference room.

They prioritize action over talking. And if we want to recapture our ability to create and innovate, this is the mindset we need to adopt.

What do you want to accomplish? Where are you delaying action with plans and meetings when you should just start? How can you make that first experiment today?

While this might be scary to some, the opposite should be much more frightening. Prioritizing plans over action drives us away from the actions that we need to innovate. Emphasizing metrics at the expense of experimenting drives a risk-averse behavior that rejects new ideas and puts us on a path to irrelevance.

Doing something new will always bring uncertainty. But it’s only when we embrace it that we can move forward. As Dani Shapiro told Debbie Millman on her podcast, Design Matters,

Action over talking. Experimentation over plans. Dive in. Start building.

I have no idea what I’m doing. And that’s a good thing.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store