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  • Mike Bensi

This is Child's Work


My 5-year-old thinks he's da bomb. And why shouldn't he? He went to school this morning thinking he was Spider Man - slinging a web my way as if to say "good-bye". By the time he comes home, he'll be planning out everything we'll do this weekend. As if he's the one in charge.

He's a great reminder of how simple things in life can be. And a stark comparison given all the complexity that we create as adults. Especially in the workplace.

A fun reminder of this is the Marshmallow Design Challenge by Peter Skillman and Tom Wujec. The rules of the challenge are simple. Within teams of four, the goal is to create the tallest structure possible with 20 pieces of spaghetti, a yard of tape, a yard of string, and one marshmallow. The structure must be completed by placing the marshmallow on top - in under 20 minutes.

Skillman and Wujec conducted this challenge across many groups and teams. As you'd expect, teams of engineers and architects consistently performed the best. Perhaps equally expected was that teams made of of business school students did the worst.

But most shocking was that teams made up of kindergartners - the same kindergartners who wear Spider Man and Wonder Women costumes - outperformed those business school students. As well as teams made up of CEOs or lawyers.

Why could a group of five-year-olds consistently outperform these other groups? And what can we adults learn when we work together with other adults?

They aren't trying to prove anything. My five-year-old thinks that when he hides under his blanket that I can't see him. He has a limited point of view for sure. When we play, it is about play. He's not trying to show how smart he is. And neither were the teams in the challenge. When adults took on the challenge, they would divide up the work and take on various roles and tasks. Someone, or a group of someones, are designated as "in charge". Kindergartners didn't create roles of power; they all worked together.

They speak up. If you've done this challenge before, some comments I hear typically are "Nobody listened to my ideas." Business school students and CEO teams held meetings to plan and discuss a plan. Which left little room to build. Whereas Kindergartners get to work right away. And they talked as they built, often times saying (and grabbing) "Here, try this." They might have been wrong, but they weren't afraid to share - and do - their ideas.

They fail quickly and often. Challenge after challenge shows that Kindergartners start building their structures earlier than the other groups. And they fail more, too. But then they build again. And again. These teams iterate constantly during the given time so that by the end, they've eliminated many of the "failed" experiments resulting in a successful structure. Other teams who didn't complete the task or completed a smaller structure didn't start building by the end. Meaning they may have had one or two tests to try before the end of the time limit - leaving enough time for the group to panic and try to pull something together at the last minute. Which never happens in the real workplace. Said no one ever.

Teams should exist to get shit done. Unfortunately, as adults, a lot can get in the way that can turn things into shit. When working as a team, can you work more like a Kindergartner to get things done - while forgetting everything else?


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