by Megan McArdle
1 FAILURE IS FUNDAMENTAL
How a Brain Scientist and a Psychologist Helped Me Stop Procrastinating
Around the turn of the millennium, Peter Skillman embarked on an interesting exercise in design philosophy. Skillman, who is now an executive at Nokia, was the head of “user experience” for Palm, the company that essentially invented the handheld computer. For five years, he ran various groups of people through a design exercise he created, which would come to be called the Spaghetti Problem. He assembled a variety of different groups, from American students to 150 Taiwanese telecom engineers, and split them into smaller units of three or four, at which point they were given twenty pieces of spaghetti, a meter of tape, a marshmallow, and a piece of string. They had eighteen minutes to create the tallest freestanding structure that would support a marshmallow.
This sort of team-building exercise is not new; I did a version of it involving straws and an egg with eight fellow students during my business school orientation weekend. What was new was Skillman’s perspective: instead of looking at it like a management guru, Skillman thought about it like a designer. In 2007, he shared what he had learned with the Gel conference, a sort of smaller version of TED.1
Unsurprisingly, the engineers did very well. The business school students finished dead last, which is probably also unsurprising to anyone who has spent a weekend doing team-building exercises with future MBAs. According to Skillman, they spent too much time arguing about who was going to be the CEO of Spaghetti, Inc. Lawyers did almost as badly.
And who did the very best? Skillman unveiled their pictures, and a wave of laughter swept through the audience. Up on the screen was a series of snapshots of kindergarten students, mugging for the camera in front of . . . well, about what you’d expect if your kindergartner made you something out of spaghetti and tape.
How did the kindergartners beat the engineers? By the simple process of experimentation and iteration. They didn’t let themselves get hemmed in by assumptions about what the rules were—they were the only group of people who asked for more spaghetti. And because they had more spaghetti, they didn’t have to waste time sitting around talking about how the tower should look, or who should get to write the vision statement. They just dove in and started creating, discarding anything that didn’t work. Since, as Skillman points out, “very few people understand the structural properties of spaghetti,” this was the fastest route to success.
The structures built by the engineers rose above the workspace with the elegant logic of a suspension bridge. The wild, asymmetrical kindergarten creations lurched drunkenly like modern art installations on a debauched spree. Yet they all supported a marshmallow, at a height that was on average a full inch taller than what the engineers had achieved. The engineers had years of schooling and work experience to teach them how to build sound structures. But the kindergartners had something even more powerful: they were not afraid of failure. By trying and failing, they learned what didn’t work—which, it turned out, was all the knowledge they needed to figure out what did.
“Multiple iterations,” Skillman told the audience, “almost always beats single-minded focus around a single idea.” The people who were planning weren’t learning. The people who were trying and failing were.
“If you have a short amount of time, it’s more important that you fail,” he said minutes later. “You fail early to succeed soon.”