How the Marshmallow Challenge Defines Our Approach to Workplace Cultures


Misa Myong, outdoor survivalist, aspiring DJ, french fry foodie.

“Every project has its own marshmallow.”

The Marshmallow Challenge, as Tom Wujec points out, reveals very deep lessons about the nature of collaboration and how we approach the unknown. We can apply it to any type of project and discover what it is that actually makes our teams tick.

Business students have this process of orienting, planning, building and then performing a last minute marshmallow test that results in either a ta-da or uh-oh moment. Mostly resulting in uh-ohs. Kindergartners, on the other hand, have mastered the procedure of prototyping and refining to create sculptures that are mostly ta-das.

Workplace cultures are usually formed the same way - mixed with a special blend of ta-das and uh-ohs.

But practice makes perfect and our ideals are not necessarily realistic. We learn by doing! The iPhone wasn’t always the portable music device it is today.

As organization begins to grow and complexity of the business begins to flourish, it’s easy to forget to look back and see if anything was left behind. As Wujec explained, plans were drawn to assemble elaborate structures, but just before the buzzer sounded, all too many learned that their model couldn’t support the marshmallow’s weight. In the same fashion, our workplace cultures need prototyping and refining to know if they’ll actually work in real life.

Wujec attributes our planning and deliberating on our instincts to jockey for power and to play it safe. CEOs succeeded the marshmallow challenge more often when working with their executive administrators rather than when alone. It takes specialized skills and facilitation skills to actually embrace the prototyping process, to reach success, and get those ta-da moments.

Culture Curve

Refining the culture prototype is called change management in the HR world. But don’t mistake adding a new beer tap or setting up a ping pong table as improving your company’s culture. Real change management must occur to support your metaphoric marshmallow.

It takes more than just incentivizing your workforce with generous bonuses and pet insurance. We often attribute culture as the foundation to employee motivation and team collaboration.

When Wujec raised the stakes and offered $10,000 to the marshmallow challenge winner, there was not one team who succeeded in a ta-da structure. So we must be weary of what skills we are reinforcing when we increase any sort of monetary incentives. A strong culture with established corporate values helps wield the necessary skills for your employees and bring them together.

Many times in order to pursue any sort of organizational change, like restructuring, we need to reinforce it with cultural change. This allows employees to be more receptive and open to workplace modifications.

We can’t be the latest and greatest without challenging the unknown

CEOs often get too comfortable and fail to question the status quo or get wrapped up trying to develop the perfect long-term plan. We must not become weary of taking a step forward and plunging into the unknown of developing our workplaces cultures. This is the only way we can get close enough to achieving the dreams of our “perfect plans”.

Every organization is unique and cannot be replicated anywhere else. There is no easy way to tell if the perfect culture is even obtainable. However, through the process of prototyping and refining, we will form our most ideal workplace cultures that will ultimately optimize performance and profitability.