Group dynamics: when kids beat the B-school students

Design maestro Peter Skillman once held a competition to find out why certain groups add up to be greater than the sum of their parts, while others don’t. To reframe, he wanted to understand what made some groups more successful. Over a few months, he assembled many four-person groups, and gave them all one task – build the tallest structure possible, from the materials listed:

  • Twenty pieces of uncooked spaghetti
  • One yard of transparent tape
  • One yard of white string
  • One standard sized marshmallow 

The contest had only one rule: the marshmallow had to be at the top of the structure. But that’s not the most interesting part. What was fascinating was the participants he chose. Some groups consisted of business school students from Stanford, some were lawyers, while others were kindergarten kids.

Who do you think built the tallest structure? You might say the B-school students, because of their skills, intelligence, and just assumed superiority. But you’d be wrong. The kindergartners built the tallest structure – taller by 26 inches on an average. This group defeated the group of lawyers and CEOs as well. 

Why did this happen? The B-school group is smarter, organized, and communicates to discuss strategy/ ideas. That’s why they should win. But that is exactly what goes against them. Though their behavior seems smooth, under it lies hesitation, inefficiency, and competition. They are busy establishing their credibility. They spend so much time managing status and power that they forget the task.  

Kindergartners on the other hand seem disorganized. But they’re actually working as a single entity. They don’t care much for status or power. They stand shoulder to shoulder, and work together quickly, spotting problems and offering ideas. They experiment and take risks. This simple practice leads to their victory.

What’s the underlying principle? The kindergartners felt safe with each other. Sub-consciously, they knew they could be themselves. And there were a few key characteristic behaviors they demonstrated:

  • Being in close physical proximity, often in circles
  • Consistently looking at each other – eye contact
  • Lots of short energetic exchanges, no long speeches
  • Speaking to each other, lots of mixing
  • Cheering for each other, laughter
  • Accepting all ideas, and trying them all out
  • Physical touch – hugs, high-fives, pats on the back

According to author Daniel Coyle, this group had chemistry. Says researcher Amy Edmondson, these are interpersonal cues that humans are very attentive to, and it adds up to them feeling psychologically safe. This causes them to feel worthy, confident, secure, and helps them have an attitude of curiosity and commitment. In other words, it builds inclusion and belonging. Come back for our next post, to learn how you can make this happen. Just like teams at Pixar and Google have.

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