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?

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