OB Insights -
Written by OB Insights
23/08/2016

The Marshmallow Challenge: Beers With Ideas

A recent Orange Bus Beers with Ideas session demonstrated the virtues of ‘failing fast’ with an enlightening team task…

At Orange Bus, we’re strong advocates of getting our work into the hands of the end users as early as possible. Whether that’s in the form of a hackathon, a location workshop or simply building user testing into our projects at regular intervals - it’s something that we really value and see a direct impact from; informing backlog refinement sessions and (most importantly) ensuring better, more relevant products make it onto the runway.

Fail Fast

The concept of “fail fast” is integral to a lot of modern methodologies, such as Scrum and Lean UX, but even exists in more rigid processes like V-Model and TDD. However, in an agency environment, convincing a client to spend some of their testing budget earlier on in the project can be a tough sell. The traditional model of having a big, isolated slab of testing at the end of a project is comforting - it’s something we’ve grown to expect and it can be seen as a buffer of protection to a client, so that they can spend a lot of time really making sure that the product they’re getting works and is exactly what they were asking for… but is that the best way? The Marshmallow Challenge The Marshmallow Challenge is used by agile teams and PMs to demonstrate a variety of things, from how to communicate best, to how teams can self-organise, but one of the most important things it demonstrates is the importance of the “marshmallow”.

[Credit - tomwujec.com] Teams who are unsuccessful at the challenge tend to put their proving points (marshmallows) at the very end of the build, as TED speaker Tom Wujec describes in his talk ‘Build a tower, build a team’. They may have a very clear idea of what their tower should look like, how it should be built, and who builds what. However, when their plan is executed - everything can fall apart when the weight of the marshmallow crushes all of that great planning into tiny fragments of spaghetti on the floor. All in the final minute! A perfectly executed plan does not necessarily guarantee a perfect product. To demonstrate this point, a variation of the Marshmallow Challenge can be made where half of the teams have the marshmallow for the entire development and half without.

The results are actually quite interesting:

Some teams with the Marshmallow throughout will still not test their tower with the marshmallow until the very end. Some teams without the marshmallow will be conscious of their lack of testing and will “simulate” the marshmallow early, by lightly pushing the tower. Teams testing with the marshmallow will often drastically change their designs. The teams that iterate with the marshmallow tend to have more freestanding towers at the end. This isn’t to say that the teams with the marshmallow always end up with the highest tower, but you can almost guarantee that they’ll have the most towers, and when the spec is simply “Build a freestanding tower with the marshmallow at the top”, it’s better to guarantee delivery than attempt to over-deliver and fail…

This is the very nature of Agile - creating things that serve a purpose, rather than idolising a solution.

To paraphrase a colleague’s explanation of Agile: “You set out to make a dessert… For whatever reason, your Pavlova doesn’t work, so you serve it up as strawberries and cream. The important thing is that everyone gets dessert.”

Join Beers with Ideas

Orange Bus hold agency Beers with Ideas (BWI) every Friday from 4.30-5.30pm in our city-centre Newcastle HQ. It’s a chance for anyone to take the floor leading brainstorms, discussion, demos, workshops and more.

Have you got any idea worth sharing or would like to chat to our team about your company? Get in touch by emailing hello@orangebus.co.uk.