Marshmallows and Toast – Wrong Assumption!


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In Ireland, March 2015 Michael facilitated a collaboration meeting with Biodiversity experts from 10 Local Authorities. The meeting was organised to take a critical look at collaboration they had experienced in a EU funded cross border project. The group also wanted to explore what a successful future collaboration would look like. As the work they do is based in a complex setting with many stakeholders, the group were taken through a number of tasks looking at systems.

The first was an exercise called The Marshmallow Game. It is an 18-minute task in small groups to construct the tallest structure that can hold a marshmallow, the resources are spaghetti, tape, and string. Only one group managed to get the structure to stand up. Why – because they all assumed that the marshmallow was light and that the structure would easily withstand this small weight. The group learned how we base our collaborations on assumptions – normally about what the common task is, but unless this is tested and modified, when we get to the end of the project (implementation) the collaboration does not deliver.

Later in the day when looking forward the group did the “Draw Toast” exercise where they had a go at drawing a simple picture showing how toast is made. Every drawing was different in style and details but every picture had common elements – each had several nodes and relationships mapped.

So they learned that systems are essentially nodes and relationships. They were able to draw out their own definition of success with this insight and went on to use that to map out all the elements of success for them as a group. This way of visualising the system and iterating it several times allows for fine detail, big issues, and collective learning to emerge very rapidly. With these exercises the group arrived at big conclusions that would normally have taken a much longer time.