Agile, Marshmallows and the BizAcademy

Each year NewVoiceMedia takes part in the Salesforce BizAcademy.

The Salesforce BizAcademy is a scheme set up by Salesforce to engage with youths from under-resourced and low-income communities.

It is organised and arranged here at NewVoiceMedia through our GivingVoice charitable activities group with Tom Furr, our GivingVoice Director (@tomfurr) and Charlie Cowan, our Communities Director (@iamcharliecowan).

Here’s a little from the Salesforce BizAcademy page:

Every year, works with youth from under-resourced and low-income communities who want to learn about entrepreneurship. By joining the corporate world for a week at our regional offices and learning from employees and mentors, they get hands-on experience and real-world business experience.

This year myself, Wyndham (Software Engineer) and Lyndsay (Development Manager) did a hands-on session about agile and business. We were originally planning it to be a presentation on agile but figured this would be too boring. For both us and the students!

The winning tower!

So we opted for a Game. Games are a good way of breaking up the topic and helping people to experience some of the concepts we wanted to talk about.

We scoured for games to explain agile (of which there are many) but none of them felt right for this audience and our message. We instead opted for the classic Marshmallow Challenge game. It might not directly explain agile, but it explains the main concepts and themes we work by at NewVoiceMedia.

In a nutshell this is what we did:

We split the teams in to four groups of four. These teams also included Charlie and Tom and Philip Kenley from Salesforce.

Each team was given a meter of masking tape, a meter of string, some scissors, 18 pieces of dry spaghetti and a marshmallow. Detailed instructions here on the Marshmallow challenge site.

They were given 18 minutes to build the tallest free standing structure capable of supporting a marshmallow on top. The marshmallow had to be resting on top, so no piercing, wedging or sticking.

During the game we saw each team building subtly different structures. The Marshmallow website (and TED Talk video) explains in details some of the findings from running this game with many groups of people.

We basically saw the same major outcome:

The teams used most of the time to build a structure based around a loose plan. Only in the closing minutes did they try to put the marshmallow on top. At which point, almost all of them fell over.

Some teams had just enough time to re-enforce ready for the end. The team that won built a pyramid structure, but it did fall over about a minute after the prize was given (I think we may use a “stand for X time” rule next time). There was however, one team (Tom’s team) that built and tested their structure as they went. They had probably the strongest, but not the tallest support and if the time rule had been applied they would have won.

We then did a mini retrospective where we looked at what went well and what didn’t go so well. Here are some of the outcomes.

What went well:

  • We worked as a team
  • We shared a common goal
  • We built a good platform

What didn’t go well:

  • We were too ambitious
  • We didn’t have enough time
  • We didn’t stick to the plan

So we then distributed the same kit again and gave them a further 18 minutes to try again.

This time we saw them tackle the problem in different ways. All of the teams copied the same basic structure that had led to two successful structures in the first round. They were still different from each other with different approaches to re-enforcing but based around a similar pyramid structure with re-enforced base.

This time though each team tried the marshmallow before the time became squeezed. They were actively building and trying as they went.

We then did another retrospective and each team knew they had been informed by the last attempt. They had developed further insights from other teams also (cross team collaboration). In a sense this is agile. We build something, we learn from that short sprint building it, we move on and take our learnings with us.

Here are the main outcomes from the game:

  • Experimenting and iterating matter
  • Upfront planning and design can help, but often leave little time to adjust and fix
  • Assumptions about the task need to be identified (i.e. – is the marshmallow heavy or light?)
  • Assumptions are often best identified through exploration, not massive up-front planning
  • Rapid feedback, reflection and responding to change creates successful products

It was a great day and it was great meeting so many interesting kids who had a desire to learn more about how businesses work.

If you’re interested in NewVoiceMedia’s charitable activities then check out the GivingVoice page here.

If you want to run the Marshmallow game yourself then check out the official website here.

If you want to watch a video on the Marshmallow challenge and see some of the surprising data from the games, then here is the TED Talk.

For more on the Salesforce Biz Academy visit their main site here.

Rob Lambert
Rob Lambert

Rob has been with NewVoiceMedia since March 2010 and works as our Test Manager within Development. His blog will feature software testing with various posts about the hosted telephony market and changes to our domain. Outside of work he loves nothing more than spending time with his wife and three children. He also helps run an online testing community and is the editor of "The Testing Planet".

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