As an avid podcast subscriber I have dozens of audio and video programs feeding into iTunes daily, but one recent submission from the TED Talks video podcast caught my eye because of its parallels to lean startups. Tom Wujec, author and fellow at Autodesk, presented at TED 2010 back in February, and his talk, "Build a tower, build a team," is now available online. Wujec conducted a team building experiment with all types of people, from business execs to kindergartners, and the results he presented were surprising, to say the least.

The activity, known as the marshmallow challenge, was borrowed by Wujec from Peter Skillman, VP of Design at Palm. Small teams are given 18 minutes to build a free-standing structure made of dry spaghetti, one yard of string, one yard of tape and a marshmallow, which must be placed on top. The team wins by creating the tallest structure of all the groups participating. What Wujec discovered is that this simple game revealed some fascinating insights into how groups collaborate.

Wujec has conducted this experiment with over 70 groups of "students and designers and architects, even the CTOs of the Fortune 50," he says. Most teams quickly break into roles and plan their structure, and then spend the remaining time building it before quickly and gingerly placing the marshmallow on top as time expires. More often than not, the structure pitifully fails as the marshmallow is added, leaving the team with a pile of spaghetti and no time to try again.

"So there are a number of people who have a lot more 'uh-oh' moments than others, and among the worst are recent graduates of business school. They lie, they cheat, they get distracted, and they produce really lame structures," says Wujec. "And of course there are teams that have a lot more 'ta-da' structures, and, among the best, are recent graduates of kindergarten."

"Design truly is a contact sport. It demands that we bring all of our senses to the task, and that we apply the very best of our thinking, our feeling and our doing to the challenge that we have at hand." - Tom Wujec
Wujec says that business school grads are taught to seek out and execute the one correct solution their challenge, while kindergartners practice the iterative prototype and refine process, much like the methods of lean startups. The kids would build, test and repeat until they found a structure that worked, and most times, he says, they built the tallest and most interesting structures.

Another interesting fact uncovered by these experiments is that incentivizing the teams didn't improve their structures, it actually made them worse. When Wujic offered the winning team a $10,000 software prize, not a single group was able to create a standing structure; however, when we returned to the same students later, they understood the need for iteration, and produced structures well above the average height.

What startups can take away from the marshmallow challenge is that bigger teams and higher incentives are no substitute for having the right skills and the right process in place. Wujec found that larger teams performed increasing worse than smaller teams, and incentivizing them with a reward did not make up for the fact that they were not using the right process.

As Wujec adds, every business challenge has its own "marshmallow," so consider bringing some kindergarten-minded people onto your startup team.

Photo by Flickr user John-Morgan.