Friday, June 11, 2010

Korah and The Marshmallow Challenge

Two years ago, someone introduced me to (Technology, Entertainment, and Design), an incredible website that features free access to talks given by a diverse group of speakers on a wide range of topics.   Over the years, the power of TED has grown, the expertise of the speakers has expanded far beyond the limits of these fields, and their impact is being felt by an ever growing audience.  In their mission statement, TED tells us that:

We believe passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world. So we're building here a clearinghouse that offers free knowledge and inspiration from the world's most inspired thinkers, and also a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other. 
Each week, I receive a digest of the new talks posted to and I wait with great anticipation to see what I am going to learn.

About one month ago, I noticed a title that grabbed my attention: Build a Tower, Build a Team.  Tom Wujec, a software designer and Fellow at Autodesk, spoke about an experiment called The Marshmallow Challenge.  In the experiment, teams of four are challenged to build the tallest possible tower in eighteen minutes using only 20 pieces of uncooked spaghetti, one yard of string, one yard of tape, and one marshmallow.  While it sounds easy, it is actually very difficult.  On average, only 6 in ten groups actually produce a standing structure.   Most assume that the marshmallow is light and fluffy and can be put on the top of a very tall structure, regardless of how stable, and that the structure will remain standing.  Quickly, the group goes from the "Ta-Da!" moment to the "UH-OH Moment!"  The structure collapses because the assumption about the marshmallow is actually incorrect.

The marshmallow challenge tells us a lot about teams and collaboration.  You can see groups that are dominated by a single individual, telling others what to do all the while ignoring input from anyone.  You can see where the group cannot agree on an approach.  There is the group that spends too much time planning leaving no time to actually build the structure.  There are groups that are very conservative, simply wanting to have a standing structure at the end of eighteen minutes and the groups that go for it all, taking wild, un-calculated risks.  Interestingly, kindergardeners perform much better than recent graduates of business school!  Kindergardeners imagine, test out prototypes, and try and try again inventing some of the most interesting structures.  According to Wujec, recent graduates of business school perform poorly for two reasons:  they are taught to put together one plan, prepare it and execute it, leaving no time for intervention when the "marshmallow crisis" comes at the 17:55 mark of the experiment.

The second reason that Wujec sites for the underperformance of the graduates is that they lie, cheat, get unfocused, and jockey for power.  This uses up enormous amounts of time, leaves some feeling excluded, shutting out voices that could be beneficial, all of which is detrimental to collaboration and building of the team.  Imagine if Korah and his followers threw down the gauntlet to Moses believing that they could build a taller tower.  Now, I know that Moshe has God on his side.  Nevertheless, I believe that Moshe would win for he learned the importance of collaboration (see parashat Yitro) and he learned the importance of making room for different voices (see Eldad and Medad and the issue of prophesy).  Korah, whose true motivation was power and not collaboration, would have used his 18 minutes fighting with others for power and control, or dictating the way things should be, not listening to others or seeing other ways to share power.  I am certain that he would have had the tallest tower until 1 nanosecond after he put the marshmallow on top at which point the entire thing would have collapsed and the earth would have opened up and swallowed him and his followers up!

This week, I conducted two marshmallow challenges: one with our hanhalla (our leadership team) and, last night, with our entire staff.  The challenge was absolutely fascinating!  Almost all of the hanhala teams had a standing structure, the tallest being around 26 inches.  The winning team for the staff achieved a height of 34 1/4 inches!  With the entire staff, we saw almost every kind of group dynamic possible.  Some groups offered bribes to members of the hanhala for the key to victory.  One group raised the issue of fairness because another group had a Ph.D. student in it (forget for a moment that he is starting his Ph.D. in the fall in ancient religion!).  Two groups seated at the same table were clearly jockeying for position.  There were groups that skipped the planning phase altogether and went straight to building, creating a taller and thinner tower every moment, until the marshmallow was placed on top and the bending started immediately.  Other groups spent over 12 minutes talking and planning until they finally had to get something going.

Once the challenge was over, we watched Tom Wujec discuss his conclusions via TED ( which you can see at ) and then applied the lessons to camp.  The conversation was fascinating and there were so many applicable messages to camp and to life.  At camp, which is a pressure cooker on so many levels, successful collaboration is the key to success in almost everything, from solving a problem in a cabin to creating a knockout program, to creating a strong team to lead an outstanding aidah.  Avoiding Korah and leading collaboratively - making room for lots of voices, hearing with respect, valuing different experiences, seeking out resources and expertise that is different from your own is the key to a successful summer, to a successful project outcome, and to a successful and meaningful life, for we never go it alone.  We are always collaborating.

Based on what I saw last night and the conversations that followed, we are poised to start an outstanding summer with people exercising leadership in all levels, valuing collaboration, and, well, looking forward to roasting marshmallows with campers as soon as they arrive.

Shabbat Shalom.

For more information on The Marshmallow Challenge, go to at the TED. com website.

To get instructions on running your own marshmallow challenge, go to

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