What do Marshmallows tell us about Development?

  • Matthew Baker

What do marshmallows tell us about development? More than you think. One central tension in our line of work is between providing ready-made solutions and taking local context into account.

At IRI, our approach includes an appreciation for how quickly developing political systems can change and evolve, and that our programs must be able to adapt if they are to remain relevant and effective. USAID is employing a new framework to better incorporate the good practices of adaptive program management through a framework called Collaboration, Learning and Adaptation (CLA for short). These three concepts provide a way of doing development work that can mutually support the merging of a planned solution and local context. Through collaborative relationships with stakeholders, systemized learning from successes and failures and program adaption to reflect learning and changing operating environments, programming can remain results-oriented as well as flexible and nimble to the very real challenges faced during implementation. 

To better understand these concepts, IRI hosted a workshop to help staff consider the many ways that CLA informs our work. As part of the workshop, staff took on the Marshmallow Challenge, a team building exercise that focuses on building a free-standing structure to support a single marshmallow using only spaghetti, masking tape, string and ingenuity.  The challenge, which has been conducted around the world with everyone from CEOs to kindergarten students, provided an opportunity for staff to implement a mini-project as a team, and then evaluating what about the process worked and didn’t work so well. The simulation provided an opportunity for IRI to understand the uses and utility of applying CLA for a project with an objective that seems simple, but turned out to be anything but! After the exercise, IRI staff discussed not only how they might have improved their marshmallow structure, but also how the process of planning, implementing and testing their structure affected how the structure was built – and how a different process could lead to a better structure. In addition, the session launched IRI’s Program After-Action Review tool, designed to help capture program learning from specific activities in a quick and simple to use way. Congratulations to all the teams, and in particular to the members of Team Meatballs who successfully won the challenge with a 28.5 inch tall structure! While at first glance it doesn’t seem like marshmallows have much to do with development, staff learned that being more deliberate about questioning assumptions, constantly assessing progress toward the desired result, and adapting based on learning can ultimately lead to more successful development outcomes. In other words, CLA can help you do something as small as build a marshmallow tower or as big as implementing a project to promote more democratic, peaceful and inclusive societies.

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