Trying a bunch of stuff together

Tuesday, February 6th, 2018

Peter Skillman’s design contest challenged each group to build the tallest possible structure using uncooked spaghetti, tape, string, and one marshmallow — to go on top:

The fascinating part of the experiment, however, had less to do with the task than with the participants. Some of the teams consisted of business school students. The others consisted of kindergartners.

The business students got right to work. They began talking and thinking strategically. They examined the materials. They tossed ideas back and forth and asked thoughtful, savvy questions. They generated several options, then honed the most promising ideas. It was professional, rational, and intelligent. The process resulted in a decision to pursue one particular strategy. Then they divided up the tasks and started building.

The kindergartners took a different approach. They did not strategize. They did not analyze or share experiences. They did not ask questions, propose options, or hone ideas. In fact, they barely talked at all. They stood very close to one another. Their interactions were not smooth or organized. They abruptly grabbed materials from one another and started building, following no plan or strategy. When they spoke, they spoke in short bursts: “Here! No, here!” Their entire technique might be described as trying a bunch of stuff together.

If you had to bet which of the teams would win, it would not be a difficult choice. You would bet on the business school students, because they possess the intelligence, skills, and experience to do a superior job. This is the way we normally think about group performance. We presume skilled individuals will combine to produce skilled performance in the same way we presume two plus two will combine to produce four. Your bet would be wrong. In dozens of trials, kindergartners built structures that averaged twenty-six inches tall, while business school students built structures that averaged less than ten inches.

The result is hard to absorb because it feels like an illusion. We see smart, experienced business school students, and we find it difficult to imagine that they would combine to produce a poor performance. We see unsophisticated, inexperienced kindergartners, and we find it difficult to imagine that they would combine to produce a successful performance. But this illusion, like every illusion, happens because our instincts have led us to focus on the wrong details. We focus on what we can see — individual skills. But individual skills are not what matters. What matters is the interaction.

The business school students appear to be collaborating, but in fact they are engaged in a process psychologists call status management. They are figuring out where they fit into the larger picture: Who is in charge? Is it okay to criticize someone’s idea? What are the rules here? Their interactions appear smooth, but their underlying behavior is riddled with inefficiency, hesitation, and subtle competition. Instead of focusing on the task, they are navigating their uncertainty about one another. They spend so much time managing status that they fail to grasp the essence of the problem (the marshmallow is relatively heavy, and the spaghetti is hard to secure). As a result, their first efforts often collapse, and they run out of time.

The actions of the kindergartners appear disorganized on the surface. But when you view them as a single entity, their behavior is efficient and effective. They are not competing for status. They stand shoulder to shoulder and work energetically together. They move quickly, spotting problems and offering help. They experiment, take risks, and notice outcomes, which guides them toward effective solutions.


  1. Kirk says:

    What is surprising about this? It’s like looking at the end-state of the MBA-led company vs. one run by a real, ground-up entrepreneur, and wondering why the MBAs went bankrupt.

    Education ain’t what it’s cracked up to be, in this sadly diminished era. You go back and look at the old-timey path to becoming an engineer, and you’ll note that there wasn’t much in the way of academics involved. Much of it was hands-on, iterative, and they did things much differently than you’d imagine, today.

    I think one of the things that future historians are going to remark on about our civilization is that we were so devoted to the forms and patterns, not the substance of things. It’s all smoke and mirrors, these days–You have architects that can’t design a damn house to work with modern HVAC, but they sure are pretty… And, they’ve got the credentials to prove it.

  2. Gaikokumaniakku says:

    “What is surprising about this?”

    I was surprised that the children had the fine motor skills to handle uncooked noodles without snapping them.

    Then I was surprised that the business students lacked ambition. While I was still reeling from that, I was surprised that no one mentioned guy lines made from string and tape. Then, for a few minutes, I tried to locate a playable copy of World of Goo, but then I rallied my faculties and went back to verbalizing my shock and consternation. So, overall, I was very surprised.

  3. Graham says:

    In general, kindergarteners do know how to compete for status and are engaging in their first practice of that innate trait with real strangers. Those who had near-age siblings or cousins have already learned a few things extra. It’s just cuter to adults when little kids do it.

    But it IS interesting, along the lines Kirk suggests, that they have not yet learned a structured approach to problem solving and their free-form approach to that also means it can’t occur to them to compete for status in this situation. They just engage the task. Or so I speculate.

    A structured approach to tasks invites [even if presented orally and quickly as in 'brainstorming'] a greater degree of formality in giving ideas, an opportunity for verbal sparring and pushback prior to the test of actually attempting the idea, and for factions to form across the table that preclude ideas getting to the point of a physical attempt.

    Of course it’s also a chance to allocate resources properly, evaluate ideas without excess use of time and loss of physical resources. I’d hate to give it up, but it does have it’s weaknesses.

  4. Kirk says:

    Iterative concrete approaches will always, always trump the theoretically ideal approach espoused by the academically trained–At least, until the work is well-understood to the point you can write a legitimate textbook on the subject.

    Look at the way that Space-X has trumped NASA with the latest product; NASA looked at the SSTO reusable concept with the X-33, screwed it up, and now we have Elon Musk landing (LANDING!!! Just the way God and Heinlein intended rocket boosters to land…) his rockets back at the pad they left from. Now, tell me again how all this finely studious work actually produces workable, real-world solutions…?

    Go look at how a lot of the basic engineering formulas were originally worked out; the Victorians like Brunel had to do the risky work of throwing things up, and evaluating what happened. That’s how it’s done; the pioneers iterate, and then the pedants come in and formulate, reducing their work to a cookbook recipe for success. Which approach works better, though, in coming up with the original formulation leading to success?

  5. Isegoria says:

    Narmno has shared a draft review of the book.

  6. Grasspunk says:

    I’m laughing because this is a bit like MSFT vs AMZN. [Having spent a lot of time at both companies I have the right to oversimplify and generalize.]

    MSFT took years to build shit with endless meetings. People would get promoted, become team leaders and change groups before shipping anything.

    AMZN would be constantly shipping small increments then seeing how they worked. Every now and then something game changing would happen (e.g. Prime). There seemed to be was a lot less ‘status management’ but hey, ymmv.

  7. Grasspunk says:

    There’s another book called The Culture Code by Clotaire Rapaille, that has some entertaining and perhaps Isegoria-worthy content. It is about finding out what are the real reasons people buy stuff beneath the endless justifications they spout. Rapaille has people relax, process all the justification and get into some trance-like state to bring out the emotion behind it all.

    Offhand I can remember a couple of codes — “it just works” was the code for the USA, which as an immigrant I thought was an apt way to describe American design philosophy. “Domination” was the reason why so many people drove SUVs. When you get through all the bullshit about space and safety people just like driving bigger vehicles and looking down on others. It doesn’t seem earth-shattering but the process he goes through to find out these “codes” was instructive. Corporations paid him bucketloads no doubt. I found myself digging in to everyone’s inner motivations. This was pre-Twitter so life was a bit simpler compared with the ridiculous signal-fests we have now.

    Since I used to read his blog and I read his previous book, when Coyle mentioned he was thinking of naming the new one The Culture Code I pointed out, idempotently, that Rapaille had a book of the same name that was pretty good. Coyle ignored me, since who takes literary advice from a livestock farmer?

    I heard about Rapaille from this PBS Frontline documentary that some evil pirateer has put on YouTube:

  8. Kirk says:


    Vis-à-vis the idea that “Domination” drives American choices for the SUV…? Yeah. No.

    What drives the choice for an SUV-class vehicle is the fact that the EPA killed off the large station wagon due to fuel economy, and the SUV and truck were the only damn things big enough to haul things with. Absent the EPA’s meddling, I can about guarantee you that the SUV and truck categories would still be in the utility-only niche, and the station wagon and large sedan would still dominate, as they did in the 1960s.

    People keep trying to ascribe these things to nebulous crap like “American’s want big cars because they have an innate drive to dominion over the world…”, when the reality is more like “Americans have a lot of crap to haul long distances, and they like to do it in comfortable vehicles…”.

    Freud had it most succinct when he said “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar…”. In an alternate universe where the CAFE standards were sane, there’s a good chance that the market would still be dominated by big station wagons.

  9. Senexada says:

    Excellent point by Kirk. It brings to mind Carlyle (Past & Present):

    Knowledge? The knowledge that will hold good in working, cleave thou to that; for Nature herself accredits that, says Yea to that. Properly thou hast no other knowledge but what thou hast got by working: the rest is yet all a hypothesis of knowledge; a thing to be argued of in schools, a thing floating in the clouds, in endless logic-vortices, till we try it and fix it. `Doubt, of whatever kind, can be ended by Action alone.’

  10. Grasspunk says:

    Kirk, you do get that I’m reporting what I remember of his book. That’s what Rapaille dug out of his market research and what those corporations do care about since they are paying him for his work.

    His thesis is there are emotional drives hidden by rationalizations and that you can use these to sell to people. He has his method getting the emotional reasons out of people. Rapaille got rich trying to figure out what they are and selling his ‘codes’ to corporations who use them in their marketing.

    Don’t know much about SUVs but I’ve been given rides in plenty of them by people who would never haul more than groceries. The first time I got in an X5 I laughed because it was a lifted BMW wagon and I knew the driver would never take it off road. Why did my coworkers buy these SUVs? Don’t know/don’t care but the sales teams at car companies do. Rapaille lists a lot of them as his clients including Ford, GM and Chrysler.

  11. Grasspunk says:

    That comment could read as an endorsement of Rapaille’s codes – it isn’t. I think it is an interesting mechanism in the same way that focus groups were interesting beforehand and Bernays’ ideas before that. Flawed but fashionable in their time.

  12. Kirk says:


    Well, when you say that you thought it was an “apt” description, that switches what you’re saying from merely reporting his thoughts to indicating you agree with them. Which is what I disagree with…

    People will tell you all kinds of delicious bullshit in focus groups, especially in self-justification and to get you to leave them alone. Whether or not that really means anything…? Well, that’s up to your interpretation, and the bets you make based on that may or may not be connected.

    I look at the whole SUV question in terms not of what the usual left-wing diptard frames it as, which is “Oh, people want big cars because they want to feel powerful…”, but in terms of practicalities. You ain’t fitting a healthy chunk of your kid’s soccer team into a Subaru, and still be able to retain distance and sanity, so… What the hell do you buy? Oh, yeah… The Suburban. Ain’t nothing else in that size range on the market, anymore, so… Your choices are constrained by that fact.

    And, yet, the leftard will say that the American car-buying public ain’t doin’ what’s right by their lights because… That car-buying public ain’t right-thinking. Reality? They’d be buying full-size station wagons, if those were really available. Which, they aren’t, because CAFE.

    Practicalities outweigh perceptions. You can ascribe behaviors all you like to what people will tell you, and focus groups are notorious for that–But, what they actually do, and the real reasons…? Who the hell is going to tell you they bought the SUV because they can’t stand being in the kind of close proximity to their own kids and their friends mandated by the Subaru wagon? No, instead, they’re going to happily agree with the focus-group leader’s proffered justification of “feeling powerful on the road…”, and the whole cluster-f**k of delusion is going to keep right on going.

  13. Grasspunk says:

    Kirk, it might be worth watching the few minutes of Rapaille in the video. IIRC he gets across that his whole point was to get past the focus-group leader’s influence and the surface reasoning.

    “Who the hell is going to tell you they bought the SUV because they can’t stand being in the kind of close proximity to their own kids and their friends mandated by the Subaru wagon?”

    That’s exactly the sort of thing he was looking for. He was trying to get below the justifications. That was the whole shtick he was selling. I’d guess his system is way more likely to get it than focus groups.

    The apt comment was clearly for the ‘it just works’ code.

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