Certainty vs discovery

Certainty vs discovery - marshmallow sweets on a table

It’s rather interesting watching teams play activities that are familiar to them. When asked to run an activity again they will say “we’ve done this before” and then begin to quote ‘facts’ from their previous encounters. So why then don’t the results of the activity when run a second or third time always improve? What is it that blinds us to improving the outcome?

An example of this is Peter Skillman’s Marshmallow Game popularized by Tom Wujec’s TED Talk. In this activity, the objective is to build the largest freestanding tower topped with a marshmallow. Simple, right? The game is all about experimentation.

However, when observing teams who have run this activity before, several things come to light. Teams remember the shape of the winning structures, they remember children are better than most adults at this activity, and so on. All of this leads them down a one-way street, they become certain, but nothing is the same – the marshmallow, spaghetti, string, tape, work surface, room are all different and the team may even be different. So it turns out most teams set off to build, not discover, and even if they manage to build a structure or not, there are still a huge number of unknowns, and that simple lesson of discovery, of test and learn is lost.

When we’re faced with situations at work that have familiar patterns, the same thing happens!


Next time you are in a familiar situation and you believe you have ‘the’ answer, ask yourself this question; What are your knowns and unknowns? Turning your unknowns into knowns will increase the success of your outcomes.