The Secret to Innovation… Find Your Marshmallow

I have started working with a group that is exploring ways to innovate within a complex, multi-party, multi-pronged social service delivery system.

As I pondered how to continue to add value to the work of the group, I began musing about innovation itself. What is it exactly and how do you help groups produce it?  At its most basic, innovation is something new.   But, a new idea remains just an idea until it is offered to a broader group – no matter how limited that group might be.  The ideas of one person become so much more when they are expanded on by a larger group through collaboration.

Enter the Marshmallow Challenge – a deceptively simple game that has groups of 4 build the tallest structure they can in 18 minutes using 20 pieces of spaghetti, a yard of tape, one yard of string and a marshmallow – the marshmallow has to end up on top of the structure.

This challenge has been extended to many, many groups and has revealed some key lessons about how groups collaborate to produce innovative ideas. The most successful teams are those that:

  • are egalitarian – e.g. no one seeks to be in charge of the outcome;
  • do not seek one “right” plan to execute; but rather,
  • follow an iterative process that provides instant feedback on what works and what doesn’t.

The inspiring lesson here is that the underlying assumptions in any innovation exercise must be identified early and need frequent testing through prototyping.  Doing this creates effective innovation – innovation that could actually result in something new, different, better.

Spending a bit of time on a fun exercise like the Marshmallow Challenge seems like a great way to reinforce that innovation is “a contact sport” and could help groups realize that it is okay to slow down, do a little prototyping and testing so that it achieves more “TA DA!” moments than “Oh-Oh” results.



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