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Finding Hidden Assumptions

I was recently lucky enough to attend ProductCamp Austin. If you are not familiar with ProductCamp, it is a free, collaborative “unconference” for product managers and other similar roles. I say “unconference”, because it is completely volunteer driven, and the campers (as attendees are called) vote on what sessions they want to see and attend.

One of the sessions I attended gave an overview of agile software development for product managers. It was a good session, going through the basics. The best part of the session was an exercise called The Marshmallow Challenge. I’ve done this exercise before, thus was excited about having the opportunity to do it again (and learn from my past mistakes).

If you are not familiar with the Marshmallow Challenge, the task is simple. Build the tallest free-standing structure out of 20 pieces of spaghetti, a yard of tape, a yard of string and one marshmallow, which must be on top. Oh, and you must do this in 17 minutes or less. In those 17 minutes, you learn a lot of great lessons!

What lessons did we learn? Turns out, we learned a lot!

  1. We needed to test our structure, and test often. If the structure could not stand on its own without the marshmallow, we were doomed once it went on top.  Essentially we were prototyping, making adjustments and changes as we learned new things.
  2. We had to collaborate with all members of the team to find the best way. Everyone contributed and threw in their ideas.
  3. What had worked in the past might not work again.
  4. Assumptions are important to recognize. Especially dangerous are the hidden assumptions. We all assume that marshmallows are light and fluffy. Unless you are spaghetti. Then they are big and heavy.

Our team ended up with the only structure that remained standing long enough to get measured. From the table to the top of the marshmallow, ours was 22 inches tall.

Marshmallow Challenge

The tallest structure that I am aware of happens to be 26 inches. With structures like these, that additional four inches is a big difference. I guess I should also state that the group who created the structure that stood 26 inches tall was a group of kindergarten students.

Yup, you read that correctly, kindergarteners.   They do better than project managers, MBA students, C-suite folks. Why? Mostly because the kids just try stuff and keep trying stuff until they figure it out. The rest of us tend to want to plan things out (especially if we have been trained to plan), and by the time we are done planning, we run out of time. And it is hard to plan in minute detail if we don’t know what we don’t know. That is why iterations are important. Prototype, try something out, adjust and try again in the next iteration.

I think the other big lesson for us all is the one about assumptions. Hidden assumptions on projects need to be ferreted out as quickly as possible. What assumptions are we making? What is the marshmallow in our projects?

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