Of Marshmallows and Learning

At Performance Development Network, no matter what kind of work we are doing, we are helping people achieve something new based in part on what they already have or know.  Breakthroughs to individual, team or organizational success might come through an intensive leadership development or strategic planning process; it may come from facilitating something as simple as “The Marshmallow Challenge”.


I don’t “teach” much – I haven’t found it necessary too often.  Most people already have more knowledge and skills than they actually use. And when you assemble a team of multiple people, the skill sets increase exponentially.

Instead, I ask questions. The right questions help people discover hidden potential.  Even the simplest of questions, asked at the right time, help people discover new possibilities for applying what they already know and know how to do.

And I nearly always involve experiential learning and iterative techniques, among other disciplined approaches.  I give people an activity to do, as a team for example. Then I ask questions about their experience, what they learned and how the experience and lessons might apply in their daily circumstances or to the challenge they are trying to address.

People don’t like to be taught, but they love to learn.  They love to play, too.  But activities don’t have to be “fun”, because when people are learning they come to appreciate the struggle to learn. We learn best through experience and we retain most through repetition. It’s a brain thing. Dr. John Medina, author of Brain Rules, says this:

“If you are in education you are in the business of brain development. If you are leading a modern corporation…you need to know how the brain works.”

This is true for strategic planning, for customized workshops and seminars, for development processes focused on broad issues such as leadership, sales and customer loyalty, for the myriad of “team building” approaches I provide, even for keynote addresses and inspirational presentations.

I provide something for people to experience in the moment – and I ask questions.  Make them use their noggins.  And the outcomes are amazing.

Lived experience, especially shared experience, also generates lateral thinking.  We do something together here and now, even something as distracting and seemingly meaningless as building a marshmallow tower, and it informs us. We learn from the distracting activity:

  • how we work together in other situations
  • why we get less than desirable results in other situations
  • how we might want to change our daily environment, the actions we take in that environment, and the processes we use in that daily environment 
  • what we must do to improve our results in our daily environment

It’s not magic, but if your team is struggling with a challenge or opportunity, a skilled facilitator with the right activity and the savvy to ask the right questions may help you produce some miraculous results.

[The Marshmallow Challenge is a remarkably fun and instructive design exercise that encourages teams to experience simple but profound lessons in collaboration, innovation and creativity. The task is simple: in 18 minutes, teams must build the tallest free-standing structure out of 20 sticks of spaghetti, one yard of tape, one yard of string, and one marshmallow. The marshmallow needs to be on top.]

About pdncoach

A Go-Giver business coach working with leaders whose success depends on the performance and productivity of others. I coach individual leaders and their teams... in small to mid-size businesses, ministries and non-profits... to accelerate their results and achieve dreams by getting past the difficult, strategic challenges of their current realities.
This entry was posted in Brain Rules, experiential learning, facilitation, lateral thinking, Marshmallow Challenge, questions. Bookmark the permalink.

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