The Simple Cure for Overthinking
In front of me sit 40 six sigma “black belts,” appraising me warily, all squinty-eyed and knit-browed. I’ve been asked to give them an introduction to design thinking. I don’t have a six sigma belt of any color. I fully admit that I wouldn’t know the difference between a six and any other number sigma.
I have decided to tee up design thinking with “The Marshmallow Challenge,” which was introduced by Peter Skillman, a former designer with product design firm IDEO, at a TED conference in 2006. The exercise is this: a team of four people is given 18 minutes to construct the tallest free-standing structure from 20 sticks of straight spaghetti, a yard of masking tape, a yard of string, and a single marshmallow, which must be on top. You can alter all the materials but the marshmallow, and “tallest” is defined as the vertical distance between the base of the tower and the top of the marshmallow.
There are all kinds of lessons and ways to debrief the exercise, but I use it to emphasize my favorite line of Skillman’s: “Enlightened trial and error succeeds over the planning of the lone genius.”
My reason for using this challenge is that I’m fairly certain that I have 40 lone geniuses in front of me, and I need to drive home Skillman’s message. If I fail, they won’t embrace design thinking as a different approach to innovative thinking.
I promise a special prize to the winning team, and they’re off.
18 minutes later, only one team has completed a free-standing tower with a marshmallow on top, and it stands a bit over 20 inches tall.
All of a sudden all those squinty-eyed skeptics were staring at me with a sort of wide-eyed and sheepish what just happened? look, as it dawns on them that 90% of the room just failed to complete the basic task of building any kind of marshmallow tower, much less the highest. Not to add insult to injury, but I let them know that the average height of a tower over the last decade is 20 inches, with CEOs, attorneys and MBAs consistently performing the worst.
But the average height of a kindergartener’s tower is 30 inches, and their success rate is nearly 100%.
I declare the winner by default, and award the special team prize: the full bag of marshmallows.
So what did happen?
The short answer is that everyone fell victim to overthinking, aka thinking too much and complicating matters, often creating problems that weren’t even there to begin with. The more important question is, why? And an even more important question might be, how do we avoid it?
General George Patton once said, “No plan escapes first contact with the enemy.” Ex-heavyweight boxing champ Mike Tyson updated Patton’s sentiment by saying, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.”
The question is, where did our love of planning come from? Part of the answer comes from our evolutionary addiction to resources. The more we have, the more we feel safe, secure, in control, shielded from risk, and thus able to perform better.
But in reality, just the opposite is often true…the more we attempt to control and regulate apparent risk, the more exposed and at risk we often are. That’s partly because the more protected we think we are, the less vigilant we become.
For example, if you have just had your car fitted with brand new brakes and tires, your driving behavior will change. Not radically, certainly, but often just enough to invite danger. Because you feel safer and more in control with improved stopping power, you will actually drive a bit faster and brake a bit later, unconsciously converting a set of resources intended to be a safety benefit to what you believe is a performance advantage.
On the other hand, if your brakes are squealing and your tires are bald, you’ll drive a bit slower and brake more carefully, and thus more safely, which is what you were after in the first place. But it is not the abundant resources that made you behave more safely, it was the lack of them.
That’s one reason I like The Marshmallow Challenge…the temporal, human, and physical resources are slim and fixed. Just like they are in the real world.
The ability to view finite resources as the very source of creative thought is the hallmark of an artist. Restraining forces always rule, and relying on slack resources or ignoring constraints not only stifles creative thinking, but also breeds overthinking.
Another part of the answer centers on our need to be certain and correct, a need easily traced to how we learn, or, more accurately, how we are educated. And yes, I am making a distinction between the two.
Consider how we learn in those first few years of life, before we ever enter a classroom. By all accounts, it is our most intensive learning period. It features failure upon failure: learning to smile, hold our head up, roll over, grab things, sit up, crawl, walk, talk…everything is an experiment, nothing happens right the first time, and what we now call failure was not labeled or even considered as failure. It was learning.
In other words, before we enter a classroom, our tests produce the lesson. Once we’re in the classroom, everything is reversed, and the lesson precedes the test. And the test is not ours by design, it is the teacher’s. By the time we’re in third grade, we know that tests and experiments are different: experiments are reserved for science class.
Be that as it may, while understanding why we overthink helps, what we really need is a reliable approach for reuniting learning with experimenting, and reigniting the natural born learner in us. And it certainly wouldn’t hurt to have a go-to, in-the-moment technique, so that when some whacky facilitator throws spaghetti and marshmallows at you and tells you to build a tower, the exercise will literally be a no-brainer.
The key lies in how young children approach The Marshmallow Challenge: kindergarteners build five working prototypes by the time nearly all adults (save architects, thankfully) have executed their one and only attempt near the finish line.
While the children focus quickly on the real problem — the marshmallow — the adults focus on the solution, the structure. Unfettered by any special knowledge of geometry, physics, organizational or action planning, children immediately focus on the biggest item in front of them, the marshmallow, and have a freestanding tower up on average inside five minutes. It’s not the tallest, but it’s up. They then build from there, testing their tower up to four more times, each time making it just a little taller, a little stronger, a little more stable. They tend to use far more of the resources, including the string, which generally gets used as stabilizing wire.
Meanwhile, the smart and knowledgeable planners of the world overanalyze and complicate a fairly simple problem, consciously making and often verbalizing the unwarranted assumption that the marshmallow will not present an issue for a strong and stable building. So, they set it aside to spend all their time building around that leap of faith, essentially ignoring the “freestanding” constraint. Why waste any precious time testing their structure? They are certain their plan will work, so they swing for the fence.
I was able to drive home to the six sigma gang the thought that learning and innovation go hand in hand, but learning comes first — and whenever you have an concept, no matter how strong or solid you think it is, don’t even consider planning how to fully implement it until you’ve designed and run a test. Or two or three. Get it roughly right and build from there.
Here’s a simple 3-step method for doing just that.
Step 1: Assumption. Ask yourself what would have to be true in order for your concept to work. Note that this is much different question from both what is true and what could be true. There should be several answers, and those answers are your conditions for success. Choose the one that gives you the most worry to start with, because that’s the one that will undoubtedly result in Tyson’s “punch in the face.” For example, in The Marshmallow Challenge, the most worrisome condition most certainly is that a marshmallow won’t topple spaghetti sticks.
Step 2. Hypothesis. A hypothesis is essentially a testable, falsifiable belief, typically in the form of “If we do X, then Y will happen.” For example, “If we break the sticks in half to build a small pyramid, it will support the marshmallow.”
Step 3. Test. Construct and run a test with a metric that acts as your proof of concept. “The marshmallow stands free indefinitely.”
Essentially, you’re relearning how to learn, rapidly and efficiently, just like you did as a toddler. If you’re like me, you’ll find it energizing, even exhilarating. And the more you do it, the more your natural born learning instinct enlivens. Eventually, an ethos of experimentation will result.
And overthinking will be a thing of the past.
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Matthew E. May is the author, most recently, of Winning the Brain Game: Fixing the 7 Fatal Flaws of Thinking.
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