Would Your Strategy Fail the Marshmallow Test?

By now, many have heard of the Marshmallow Test. A child is given a choice, they can have one Marshmallow (or cookie or other sweet) now, or if they wait a period of time they can have several more. The test is said to correlate to higher SAT scores, greater success, and better life outcomes.

While this is an often repeated experiment, you can see it in action almost daily on the NYC Subway. The NYC Subway can get hectic, not quite Tokyo Subway hectic, but there is definitely lots of squeezing and pushing to get on packed trains.

In some cases the pushing makes sense, another train won’t be along for another 10 or 15 minutes, and a little squeezing and pushing can mean the difference between getting to work on time or being late.

Other times, not so much. People will pack further into already packed trains, when another train is right behind. Often, there is an electronic board right above them flashing that another train is 0 min away, and the train operator will state over the PA, “There is another train directly behind this train”. Yet, people push and shove and squeeze to get on the train.

A packed train doesn’t move as quick, people have to reshuffle and push and squeeze to get out only for more people to push and shove and squeeze to get back in, and overall, the train moves along its path slower and is a big pain in the ass for everyone on board. The next train is virtually guaranteed to be less busy. No pushing and shoving, and at the very least, you won’t have to ask the all-to-common packed-train question: “What, exactly, is rubbing the back of my leg?”

It’s the marshmallow test. If a few people voluntarily waited the extra minute or two for the next train, rather than push and shove, their experience (and everyone else’s) would be much better. At the very least, they might get through a day with a lot less questionable touching.

What does this have to do with Business and Strategic Planning?

Think of your strategy, does it focus on short-term thinking or does it focus on the long game? Think of your leadership, not just the CEO but the department, division, or group leadership, would they forgo a quick small win for a longer-term bigger win? The fact is that most business strategies and corporate leaders fail the test. They jump at the short term gain over the longer term win for a variety of reasons. Money, corporate forces, risk, limited knowledge or information, and many other factors come to play.

Going for the easy Marshmallow, and avoiding potential future risks, may help leaders improve their near-term financial figures, gain some quick favor or build some temporary interest, but can hobble the firm far into the future.

This is a critical issue, and is becoming a popular refrain in the business world, yet, very little changes. Corporate Leaders remain reluctant to take longer-term risks and many start-ups are behaving desperately, dismissing long-term planning and strategy, trying to secure any possible short-term gain. Addressing the challenge doesn’t require immense shifts. Simple steps and a slight shift in thinking can influence the positive changes necessary to help the organization focus on the longer-term.

Start by taking three simple steps:

  1. Even short-term, think about what comes next. Assume you ate the Marshmallow – now what? Did the quick win change anything? Did it help the organization achieve anything material? Many times, the quick win and the immediate challenge becomes the focus, with little attention paid to what comes next, even in the short-term.
  2. Define the environment you need to ignore the current Marshmallow. Think about what the benefit or environment needs to be to shoot for the longer-term win. Do you need the explicit support of senior leadership? Do you need additional resources? Do you need more information? Does the benefit need to be of a certain size? It’s amazing what can happen when leaders are forced to think about their situation in new and different ways. Potential threats turn out not to be existent, additional resources can be secured, benefits become more well defined, and partners they never thought possible are willing to lend support.
  3. Pretend you’re looking back. Force yourself to consider the even longer-term. Think about where you want to be, where your should be, and where you’ve been. Does the current strategy fall where it should? Does a little deeper strategic thinking identify weaknesses or hidden opportunities? Many leaders know where they want to be, but how to get there is the gray area. It is a gray area, but by pretending you are already where you want to be can help you put near-term and long-term actions in perspective.

In closing, the Marshmallow Test has proven over time that a kid may just be hungry, and Subway riders are all to familiar with rushing to avoid the admonishment for being late, but the thinking behind around the Marshmallow Test has enormous implications the business world. Small steps and a little patience can have tremendous benefits, and can help an organization earn a whole bag of Marshmallows.

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