Everything I know about design I learned in kindergarten

Tom Wujec stands before the crowd at this year’s TED conference and talks about a tool that restores balance to the team-building process. As he says on his website, the Marshmallow Challenge is a “fun and instructive design exercise that encourages teams to experience simple but profound lessons in collaboration, innovation and creativity.”

But it’s more than that.

The task looks 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. And after 18 minutes, it needs to stay there.

The real lesson has as much to do with creativity as with collaboration, as Wujec shows when he reveals who does well and who doesn’t during the challenge. The worst performers are recent graduates of business schools. The best performers are architects and engineers — no upset there. The surprise is that after that group, the best performers are kindergarten students.

Wujec is a fellow at Autodesk, which makes software for the design and engineering community, so he should know about visual collaboration and teamwork. So when he says that B-school grads do poorly because “they are trained to find the single right plan,” it’s time to re-examine the model. Kindergarteners do well because they build prototypes. They experiment. They have fun without latching onto a single solution at the beginning.

No right or wrong, at least not at first. Just an openness to explore the possibilities. Then we turn it over to the engineers. After all, we want whatever we’re creating to work.