1: “Why do certain groups add up to be greater than the sum of their parts, while others add up to be less?”

Designer and engineer Peter Skillman held a competition to find out, Daniel Coyle writes in The Culture Code: The Secrets of Highly Successful Groups.

Peter put together four-person teams at Stanford, the University of California, the University of Tokyo, and a few other places.

Here was the challenge: Each group was to build the tallest possible structure using the following items:

• twenty pieces of uncooked spaghetti

• one yard of transparent tape

• one yard of string

• one standard-size marshmallow

There was only one rule: The marshmallow had to end up on top.

2: What’s most interesting about the experiment, however, was not the task but the participants. Some groups were made up of business school students. The other groups were kindergartners.

As expected, the business school students got right to work. “They began talking and thinking strategically. They examined the materials. They tossed ideas back and forth and asked thoughtful, savvy questions. They generated several options, then honed the most promising ideas,” he notes.

“It was professional, rational, and intelligent. The process resulted in a decision to pursue one particular strategy. Then they divided up the tasks and started building.”

Not surprisingly, the kindergartners’ process was quite different. “They did not strategize. They did not analyze or share experiences. They did not ask questions, propose options, or hone ideas,” Daniel writes.

“In fact, they barely talked at all. They stood very close to one another. Their interactions were not smooth or organized. They abruptly grabbed materials from one another and started building, following no plan or strategy.”

Their approach might best be described as: “Try a bunch of stuff and see what works.”

So, the business school students won, right?


“In dozens of trials, kindergartners built structures that averaged twenty-six inches tall,” Daniel notes. “while business school students built structures that averaged less than ten inches.”


We assume that business school students have “the intelligence, skills, and experience to do a superior job,” he writes. “We focus on what we can see—individual skills. But individual skills are not what matters.”

3: What does matter? How the groups interact.

“The business school students appear to be collaborating, but in fact, they are engaged in a process psychologists call status management,” Daniel observes. “They are figuring out where they fit into the larger picture: Who is in charge? Is it okay to criticize someone’s idea? What are the rules here?”

While it appears they are interacting with each other in a polished fashion, “their underlying behavior is riddled with inefficiency, hesitation, and subtle competition,” he writes.

“Instead of focusing on the task, they are navigating their uncertainty about one another. They spend so much time managing status that they fail to grasp the essence of the problem (the marshmallow is a relatively heavy, and the spaghetti is hard to secure). As a result, their first efforts often collapse, and they run out of time.”

The kindergarteners appear disorganized, but their actions are efficient and effective.” Because they stand shoulder to shoulder. Because they are not competing for status. Because they work rapidly. Because they see problems and offer to help.

“They experiment, take risks, and notice outcomes,” Daniel notes, “which guides them toward effective solutions.”

The business school students are certainly smarter, But the kindergarteners work smarter.

“They are tapping into a simple and powerful method in which a group of ordinary people can create a performance far beyond the sum of their parts,” Daniel writes.

Which is the topic of Daniel’s book.

More tomorrow!


Reflection: What are the implications of the Marshmallow Challenge for the people or teams I work with?

Action: Discuss with a colleague or friend.

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