Injecting fun into workshops
Workshops can be boring, and if you're lacking a presenter with a big personality, this one challenge may come in handy.
Here’s the thing about workshops: a lot of times, people don’t want to be there. You can’t blame them either. Usually, they’re run on weekends (people have jobs), their minds are elsewhere, participants are still asleep & haven’t had breakfast. Add to that a less than enthusiastic conductor who regurgitates platitudes about the importance of “putting the user first” (I’ve been guilty of this).
But! After running many a workshop, we’ve developed an arsenal of tips & tricks to get everybody in the mood – regardless of how grumpy or hungry they are. It’s a little activity called the Marshmallow challenge and it’s a brilliant way of waking everybody up, switching brains on & getting everyone talking. Students, adults of all ages and even elderly folk have a blast & most attendees rate it as one of the most enjoyable activities of the day.
Why’s it so good? Because it isn’t work; it’s play. As anyone who’s worked in the field would tell you, the holy grail of UX is to design experiences that don’t require a great deal of mental effort. The same should be true of a workshop. If the bulk of the day involves having participants think about themselves & putting up post-it notes on a whiteboard, it’s crucial to get them warmed up with something fun & less mentally demanding.
Here’s how it works.
1. Break the room into groups of 3 or 4 people per team.
2. Provide each team with the following:
– 1 yard of masking tape
– 1 yard of cotton string
– 20 sticks of hard spaghetti
– 1 marshmallow
3. Issue the challenge: Together with their teammates, they have to construct the tallest freestanding structure they can within 25 minutes (time extensions can be given for the stragglers).
And because within any group there’s always a few cheeky so and so’s who try to bend the rules, make sure to tell them the following contingencies:
– Teams can break the pieces of spaghetti if they feel they need too.
– The marshmallow must remain in one piece (As if we didn’t see that coming).
– They can’t hang the marshmallow from the ceiling (I’ve seen this before).
– They can’t alter the height of the table it’s resting on (Ok, this is pretty clever).
– Remind participants the marshmallow isn’t for eating (Instant disqualification).
It also pays to give them a few minutes of preparation to talk over a plan of attack or how they’ll approach it. You’ll find that the teams that bother to do a rough sketch end up besting the teams that don’t.
At the end of the 25minutes, measure each structure that’s still standing. After deciding the winner, give the winning team a prize as a reward for their efforts.
You’d assume that elder folk or people with experience in engineering or architecture to have an unfair advantage, but in most cases the reverse is true. It’s youngsters who seem to have a natural collaborate instinct and end up with stronger structures that don’t fall over.
That’s it. You’ll find that after this exercise, all participants are excited, relaxed and more than willing to chat amongst themselves. They’ll also have no problem participating together in future activities.
So there it is – the perfect warm-up for a day-long workshop.
We should talk