Fostering Change and The Marshmallow Challenge

What does building a marshmallow-topped spaghetti tower have to do with supporting young people as they make the transition from foster care to adulthood? Is it the delicate and precarious nature of the tower, held together with a bit of string and tape? Is it the sweet and good life represented by the marshmallow on the top of the tower? Is it the fun of trying to build a taller tower than the table next to you with people you may just have met? Or is it the trials and tribulations of doing this all in 18 minutes?

So many parallels. We laid down The Marshmallow Challenge last week with a group of Fostering Change Learning Day participants. The Marshmallow Challenge is a design exercise that encourages teams to experience collaboration, innovation and creativity. It gives groups a shared experience and some common language. In our world, we were trying to learn more and get comfortable with the idea of prototyping. The dictionary definition of a prototype is: a first, typical or preliminary model of something, especially a machine, from which other forms are developed or copied. Instead of building machines, we are trying to build new and improved practices and ways of supporting young people.

In our Fostering Change Learning Framework, we start with questions. What do we want to know? What is hard? What is needed? What are we having challenges with? What do we wish we could do better?

After identifying questions, we do some learning related to the question. What do we already know? What are other people doing? What is some theory that can help us to address this question?

And then we want to move to action. What is a new practice that we can develop to address this question? Small, everyday changes that we can make in the way we do our work that can help us move forward.

Working in a complex system, we cannot always rely on things to happen in a linear manner. However, we can design small “safe-fail” experiments that allow emergent possibilities to become more visible. Haven’t you ever wondered, what if I just tried this for a month, what would happen? In fact, you are probably conducting small experiments or prototypes all of the time, without calling it that.

Complex systems (and human beings) are also highly sensitive to small interventions. We don’t need guaranteed success, we don’t need to know what will work or what will happen, we just need to be safe, and be willing to fail. Therefore, we benefit from having many actions being undertaken, with an ongoing process for learning, such as we’ve laid out in the Fostering Change Learning Framework.

So, in our Marshmallow Challenge, after 18 minutes, three of eleven tables had standing structures – the winning tower reaching a height of 27 inches! However, all of the participants had valuable reflections to offer:


Just start! If you want to do something, just start doing it, and learn from it. Just start!

Learn from what others are doing. Contrary to what we were all taught in school, we should be looking over at the next table and seeing how they are building their tower. And then we should be improving on it.

Perfection is not the aim. Don’t try to be perfect, and certainly not at the very beginning (or ever….?).

Challenge assumptions. Tongue in cheek, one of the participants suggested that perhaps the instructions were flawed, and that this was why their team had not been successful. Although she was joking, it is true that we should not necessarily accept instructions as given, and we should certainly challenge assumptions. 

Don’t rush. The saying “Go slow to go fast” certainly applies here (within reason – there are still only 18 minutes in the challenge!). Some of the principles that we hold closest, such as inclusivity and sensitivity to differences, require care and sometimes “slowness”. Are there people in the group who are not contributing? Maybe they have the best ideas.   

Share openly. The temptation is strong to question whether or not you should share something. Adopt a brainstorming mentality – there are no bad ideas – we just need lots of them!

Be verbal. Be critical. Be assertive. Yup!

Narrate your work. Find a way to keep track of what you are doing. Be conscious of your process.

Work with what we have. We may not have the best materials (bargain brand spaghetti?), but we have what we have, and we can get started with that.

Shift from SUCCESS to LEARNING. Working on prototyping requires a shift in mental orientation from being driven towards success to being driven towards learning.