Spaghetti Tower, an experiment to observe learning patterns in teams and networks

November 20, 2013 | Blog-Admin1 | Learning Elsewhere, Methods & Tools |


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Ernst Bolliger

You definitely participated once in your live in a team building exercise: Several teams compete with each other. The lessons learned are about the organization of the team. In a recent similar experiment the question was: “What is the knowledge interaction among teams in a competing situation and how do the knowledge patterns change with changing competition rules?”

Ernst Bolliger, Agridea

The Swiss Knowledge Management Forum (SKMF) invited for an experiment in organizational learning. The facilitator of the evening guided 24 participants in an exercise called Spaghetti Tower – or: What are the learning patterns in a team and among teams in a network?


The design of the experiment

We gathered in groups of four around a table and got the task to construct a tower with 20 spaghettis, 80cm of scotch tape, 40 cm of string and a marshmallow that had to be put on top of the tower under the condition that the tower would support this additional weight and stand stable. The aim was to build the tower as high as possible.

Round 1

For round one, each group worked independently and had 15 minutes time. Result: One tower with a height of 45 cm stood, all the other towers collapsed.

Then all the groups got some time to discuss their experience and finally could send one contact person for two minutes to other groups to explore their construction concept. After the two minutes, the contact person returned to the group and shared his/her insights for five minutes with his/her peers.

Round 2

In round two, the same material has been distributed again, the task was the same, the time given was reduced to ten minutes and there was an additional evaluation criterion: the average height of all towers. Result: All towers stood straight, the highest tower came up to 70cm; none of the towers collapsed, and the average height was of 45cm.

Between round two and three, all participants have been given 5 minutes to share their experience along some key issues defined together. There was a free exchange among all the groups.

Round 3

Round three started again with a new set of material and the same rules as in round two.

Result: Highest tower: 84cm, 1 tower collapsed, average height 40 cm.

So far about the experiment. What did I observe?

››› Personal learning and sharing within the team was quite intensive at the end of round one.

››› The contact persons sent to other groups had difficult time to bring back their insights into the group; there was little integration of the external lessons learnt into the team’s knowledge. Each group repeated (and refined) its own construction principle.

››› Lessons learnt from others were higher after the second sharing when everyone was allowed to share and explore the experience of others. New construction principles have been adopted / developed for round three. However, the integration of new construction principles led to new risks and the collapse of one tower.

››› The fact that in round three, three sets of material were in reach-width of the group misled one group to use 40 spaghettis to construct the winning tower. This was not discovered by the facilitator.

And what are my lessons learnt for “Learning in Networks”?

››› Learning is done first individually, then within the working team, and finally at the level of the organization.

››› Learning takes time. This is increasingly true for learning processes at all three levels – individual, team, and organization.

››› Lessons learnt somewhere else in the network are not easily integrated in a new context.

››› It is almost useless to send one team member (ambassador) to explore lessons elsewhere, unless there is a strong will and clear commitment from the remaining team to learn from the ambassador’s report.

››› If the whole team takes time to learn from others, the chance of integrating new insights is much bigger compared to the “ambassador approach”

What about your lessons learnt in your network context?



Comments to“Spaghetti Tower, an experiment to observe learning patterns in teams and networks”

  1. Ernst, that’s an interesting variation of the famous “Marshmallow Challenge” and you are drawing some interesting new insights from it! Thanks for sharing!

    It is interesting to watch the TED Talk on the original contest – with a different set-up and entirely different lessons learnt:

    Good Hope from the Cape,

  2. Nadejda Loumbeva says:

    Great observations Ernst and really interesting video Mike. I particularly take away the point on the importance of iterative prototyping and facilitation in building teams.

  3. Veronique Sikora says:

    Thank you so much Ernst for the great summary of the event and for your wonderful insights and lessons learned.

    Having taken part in the activity, I remember that it sounded so simple and yet so complex. I remember thinking about the marshmallow and wondering how it would balance on top of spaghetti because of its weight. And then I wondered how useful the tape would be. I also thought: What can we do with string?

    It was fun to watch people’s reactions to the activity and to watch them venture into the activity; either as full participants or as observers, not knowing how to be part of it or not wanting to be part of it. Some people had, what I interpreted as fear, some delight, some hesitation. There were many many emotions.

    Another aspect is that in this group many people did not know each other. I did not know anyone in the group and because of the way I was feeling, I reacted differently than the way I might normally react. But the individuals and the group could very well have interpreted this differently. At one point I felt I needed to clarify the situation.

    Lessons learned: working with people in complex situations entails suspending judgements, giving people the space to voice their thoughts and listening to what is emerging.

  4. Thank you for sharing this experience.
    Your observation on bringing back insights from other groups through one “ambassador” makes me think of hierarchies: To me, the example shows how hierarchical knowledge sharing has its limits. On the other side, when all go out and learn (what each person wants to know) the group retains more knowledge finally.

    Thanks, Hynek

  5. Nadia von Holzen says:

    Dear Ernst, your observations are indeed highly relevant for learning in SDC’s networks! Our assumption is that network members bring back new knowledge, insights and ideas to the team and the programmes they are involved in. But how does this work in practice; are we consciously supporting the integration of knowledge? I am convinced that transfer of knowledge needs to be high on the agenda of all stakeholders involved. The spaghetti tower experiment shows that network engagement is most effective when the whole team is committed. SDC’s knowledge networks are not an individual affair, the transfer of learning is a team question and needs leadership.
    Thanks for sharing your insights! Best Nadia


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