You never know when you’re going to learn a great lesson from daily life. That’s what happened for me last Wednesday at an offsite I was involved in. As they say, expect the unexpected!

For the last four days, I’ve been immersed in workshops with research scientists and staff from Arizona State University (ASU). These are smart people. And in their fields, they’re considered brilliant. Yes, an amazing and humbling experience.

As a member of the steering group that designs and delivers ASU’s Leadership Academy for faculty and research staff, I have the pleasure of spending quality time with these people on a regular basis.

The Ice-Breaker

Wednesday was the kickoff for our newest cohort and as an “ice-breaker”, we had them do a modified version of the Marshmallow Challenge.

We had four teams, each focused on a different area of research, and the teams ranged from four to eight people in size. Before they started, I guessed that the losing team would be the team of eight people simply because it tends to be harder to get a bigger group on the same page. I was betting on one of the smaller teams.

So here’s the charge we gave the four teams:

  • Build the tallest freestanding structure you can using at least one piece of each of the following materials:
    • 4 red plastic drink cups (like the kind you had at college frat parties),
    • 20 spaghetti sticks (uncooked)
    • 10 drinking straws
    • 15 marshmallows
  • A marshmallow must be on top
  • The structure must stand unsupported for at least 5 seconds.
  • You’ve got 18 minutes. Go!

In the end, all four teams were able to produce a standing structure. However, one team was the clear winner. And guess what, it was the eight person team! This made me curious.

Leadership Academy August 2015 Marshmallow Challenge

Secrets to Success

When I asked the winning team how they did it, here’s what they said:

  1. “We started with the obvious” – one person started by forming a strong base with the cups, which were the heaviest and most stable of the items. This seemed to work and gave the team confidence.
  1. “We experimented broadly” – with an “obvious” solution identified, they then allowed each team member to try out other ideas. While most of these didn’t end up working, these “failed” experiments did give the team useful information on what might work better.
  1. “We were willing to let go of failed experiments quickly” – they embraced the Silicon Valley “fail forward, fail fast” mantra, which allowed the team to learn quickly and move on.
  1. “We took a pragmatic approach as the deadline neared” – with three minutes to go, the team agreed to go back to the option that had worked best (which happened to be the original option) and worked calmly and collaboratively to improve on it.
  1. “We weren’t burdened by ‘too much knowledge’” – they pointed out that there were no experts on the team to “confuse us with complicated facts”. (As an aside, I urge you to watch the TED Talk on this – spoiler alert, it’s not the adults who build the highest structures… although engineers and architects, thankfully, do tend to do well!).

What it means for the rest of us

So the bigger question is how can you apply this in your own life – both as an individual and as part of a team?

Here are my three takeaways:


I’m a fan of devising experiments – the kind that don’t “bet the farm”, yet still help you take a step (or even a half-step) outside your comfort zone. It’s the best way to learn, and definitely the best way to begin the process of identifying your next step forward.

And when you do, I find it’s often useful to do more than one experiment at a time. That way, you learn more quickly than if you wait to do them sequentially.

In a team context, make sure that everyone gets equal airtime to try out their ideas. And set the ground rule of “there is no such thing as a dumb idea” – when the reaction to someone’s idea is to immediately say, “no, that’ll never work”, we run the risk of doing the same old thing in the same old way… and getting the same old results.

Plus, it’s not in the group’s interest to shut down a team member, no matter where they stand in the pecking order – you could be silencing someone who may provide a brilliant idea or question down the line!

Let go of what doesn't work

It’s easy to hang on to strategies that no longer suit our needs. For example, being overly self-deprecating when you’re now the respected team leader, or still attending to the details (aka micro-managing) when you’re expected to develop the strategic vision.

Whether it’s our fear of change or the physics of inertia (“a body in motion tends to stay in motion, and a body at rest tends to stay at rest”), our lifelong habits are hard to change. Yet, these are the very forces that keep us from fulfilling our true potential.

From a team perspective, it’s about not getting wed to “how we’ve always done things”. And sometimes, it even means allowing a team member to move on when they are no longer energized by and energizing to the team’s mission.

Get to “done”

At some point, we have to complete the task. It’s easy to keep analyzing and discussing, but at some point we’ve got to do what Seth Godin calls “ship”. As in get the product or idea out the door and into the hands of whoever will be using it. It doesn’t have to be “pretty” or perfect, you just have to get it out into the world.

And as a team, it’s even more challenging to get to “done”. There are more opinions. More people who want to review the idea. More people who feel they have a stake. In those circumstances, it’s important for someone to call time – just like those tests back in college where the proctor said, “pencils down” when time was up and you had to hand in your exam booklet, even if you were in mid-sentence.

Every team needs that pragmatist who keeps the team on task and galvanizes the group to action when it’s time to conclude. Perhaps it’s you?

So, the next time you’ve got to be innovative, whether as an individual or as part of a team, remember to experiment, let go of what doesn’t work, and get to “done”.

And don’t worry too much about not knowing enough. Often, you can add the greatest value when you’re in a position to ask the “naïve question” or see things through a different lens.

So, what’s been your experience with working in teams? And what experiments are you planning to conduct this quarter?