Start with the marshmallow on top

A couple times a year I teach a workshop called “Into to Design Thinking” where we do this exercise called the Marshmallow Challenge (invented by Tom Wujec).

The room breaks into groups of four or five, and each group is given a box of spaghetti sticks, a ball of string, a roll of masking tape, and single marshmallow. Using the materials provided, each group tries to build the tallest possible tower capable of holding the marshmallow. When the buzzer goes off, the group with the highest marshmallow wins.

Each year the same thing happens.

The groups start by making drawings, testing out structures, arguing about physics, and trying to figure out who is the group leader that will turn options into decisions. Then they make a spaghetti tower. First slowly, then it gets bigger and bigger until theres only one minute left on the timer. The tension rises. The teams reenforce the base, add tape to the joints, and then, at the very last second, they stick the marshmallow on top. And then….

Almost every tower falls over.

The lesson here is obvious. If we don’t begin with the end in mind, if we don’t start each project with its core function, we will almost certainly waste precious time, materials, and energy.

I see this mistake everywhere I look – in software development, architecture, event planning, you name it. Even I am guilty of it.

What are you working on right now? What is your marshmallow, and is it on top?