Act Like 5 Year Olds

My favorite pop-biz anecdote is about a group of MBAs losing to kindergarteners in a complex collaborative challenge. The participants were split into groups and the goal was to construct the tallest tower from spaghetti sticks, tape, and marshmallows. Shockingly, the 5 year olds ended up beating the MBAs, over and over again, consistently in group after group. This result has been replicated a number of times, with the 5 year olds also beating groups of CEOs, lawyers, and average adults.

That's right, high-intelligence, high-aptitude adults in a complex collaborative task, losing to a bunch of barely potty trained kids.

Why? The researchers noted that the 5 year olds just started doing the task, everybody pitching in, adding things on, making suggestions. It was uncoordinated chaos, in sharp contrast to the adults, who spent a lot of time dividing up the task, talking through ideas, discussing, and planning, and much less time comparatively actually trying to do the task at hand. The critical difference was the five year olds had no baggage of process and propriety – they simply went after the task at hand, full speed. There was no power posturing over who should be “leader” of the group, there was no leader of the group, just everyone throwing themselves at the task. They were doing, not discussing.

In this analogy, a startup is a group of kindergarteners and big corp is the group of MBAs.

I mean it's hardly an analogy, it's almost literally true.

The point is, just start doing, even if what you are doing feels kind of like a group of chaotic uncoordinated 5 year olds.


The 5 year olds did consistently lose to one group: engineers. Which is heartening, I suppose. This provides the important exception that proves the rule: “chaotic doing” is optimal if you don't know the problem domain well. If you are experienced in a domain, have lived it personally and studied it, then careful planning and thoughtful action are superior. The point with startups though is that, almost by definition, you are tackling a product / market that has never been tackled before, and are building a company with people that have probably never built a company before, and definitely not one that will face the same challenges as this one.

So channel your inner 5 year old.