Teach your Students Why Business Plans Fail

Teach your Students Why Business Plans Fail

What if you kicked off your next semester with a flurry of activity that showed your students how to avoid the biggest mistake in entrepreneurship – by letting them experience it?

The perfect failure 🙂
Xavier University an ExEC Pilot

This exercise will turn your students’ love for competition into an active learning opportunity about entrepreneurship that they’ll remember for the rest of their lives.

The Marshmallow Challenge is an 18-minute chaotic construction competition that teaches entrepreneurship students why

Invalidated assumptions hinder all new initiatives.

and are ultimately the downfall of most new companies. They learn a bias towards action, and the power of resilience in the face of a challenge.

Many professors use the Marshmallow Challenge as an ice-breaker, or as a team-building exercise, with great results. But very few use it to teach its most valuable lesson . . .

Hidden Assumptions

Several of your students will fail this challenge – and it will be glorious!

George State University an ExEC Pilot

The objective of the Marshmallow Challenge is for student teams to build the tallest free-standing structure they can out of uncooked spaghetti, string, tape and a single large marshmallow.

Inevitably, your students will assume the marshmallow they need to place on top of their structure is lighter than it is, and they’ll assume uncooked spaghetti is strong than it is, leading to a pile of broken, edible, dreams.

In this way, your students will get to learn first-hand:

Just like in entrepreneurship, invalidated assumptions lead to failure.

In traditional classes, business students get trained to write comprehensive business plans – not realizing hidden assumptions will ultimately hinder their success.

On the other hand, kindergartners excel at the Marshmallow Challenge because they don’t make plans based on hidden assumptions. The first thing they do is run an experiment, putting a marshmallow on a piece of spaghetti to see what happens. From there they iterate, building the tallest structure possible.

Courtesy of Tom Wujec

This experimental mindset is what you want your students to embody throughout the rest of your course.

With this exercise, they’ll experience the dangers of hidden assumptions first hand so they’ll be primed to validate their business model assumptions in future lessons:

  • Do customers have the problem your students want to solve?
  • Will customers pay to solve it?
  • Can your students actually solve the problem?

Students Love It

400+ pilot students have done the the ExEC version of the Marshmallow Challenge. So far, they’re loving it:

“This activity was not what i was expecting and i took away a lot from it. It taught me to look at a project with no previous assumptions and it make me think like a kindergartener again which made me excited.”- Hannah

“The Marshmallow experiment gave me a real life example of why experimenting is much more beneficial than planning things out.“– Morgan

“Now I know the value of prototyping, also, now I understand the importance of identifying the hidden assumptions which cause many times good ideas to fail.” – Andreina

“After the activity, I understood the importance of adapting to problems and the dangers of assumptions.”– Eric

Powerful Learning

The fast pace, excitement, and ultimate failure many teams experience during this exercise replicate the typical entrepreneurial experience, and demonstrate many of the pitfalls of traditional business plans:

  • Insufficient identification of hidden assumptions (e.g. the marshmallow is much heavier than they realize, the spaghetti is less rigid than they expect, etc.)
  • Developing plans based on those hidden/incorrect assumptions
  • Investing all their resources (e.g. time, tape, etc.) in a single, large, “launch” attempt vs. iterating on many simpler versions

After the exercise, your students can write up a reflection, incorporating essential principles of entrepreneurship:

  • Assumption identification, and assumption validation, are critical to creating successful companies
  • Iterations and experimentations are the key to validating their business assumptions

Try it Next Semester

You can easily incorporate the Marshmallow Challenge into your class, just:

Check out ExEC and request a free preview.

If you decide to use ExEC, we’ll provide you with:

  • A step-by-step lesson plan with details on how to prep, execute and discuss the exercise
  • Music to play during the challenge to get your students excited and engaged
  • A learning objective-solidifying reflection assignment
  • Free Marshmallow Challenge Kits, including all of the supplies you’ll need (e.g. spaghetti, string, marshmallows, tape measure, etc.) for each of your students!

Full Class Engagement

If you want to start your class with a bang of energy and active learning, give the Marshmallow Challenge a shot.

So far the 10 ExEC Pilot professors, and their students love it. We think you, and your students, will will too 🙂

Rowan University an ExEC Pilot

For more information on the Marshmallow Challenge, be sure to check out Tom Wujec’s incredible website. He’s got a ton of great resources available there.


What’s Next?

We’ll share a fully-transparent update into the Fall Pilot Cohort of our Experiential Entrepreneurship Curriculum.

Through faculty and student testimonials, we’ll share with you what’s going well and what we need to improve for next semester, as we practice what we preach, iterating our way to a more engaging and impactful entrepreneurship curriculum.

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