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What We Can Learn from 5-Year Olds

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It’s a simple challenge, devised by design expert Tom Wujec, that tests ingenuity, teamwork, and adaptive reasoning. It’s been carried out all over the world, across many different populations and demographics, and the table below shows comparatively how different groups perform.

Wait…5-year olds consistently outperform business school students, lawyers and CEOs? Surely that can’t be right…

As part of my coaching I have set this challenge many times myself over the years, working in several different contexts with a range of different groups. I also have a toddler, and honestly, from my own experience of seeing people complete the challenge, the statistics don’t surprise me at all.

Here are 5 reasons why.

  1. Children aren’t afraid to fail

The key to being successful in this challenge is to experiment. To rapidly test a number of different ideas until you find something that works, then keep experimenting to see if you can build higher and higher without the whole thing collapsing or falling over. This of course means that you end up with a lot of failed attempts, collapsing towers and ideas that don’t work. Children embrace this way of working wholeheartedly and unthinkingly, whereas as adults, we don’t. As we grow up we learn about the importance of being successful, and maintaining our hard-earned reputation. We learn about the importance of being “right” and the danger of losing face, and how that can affect our all-important social standing.

We are more cautious about taking risks, experimenting and voicing our ideas, especially among our peers, and that can become a real obstacle when it comes to creative problem-solving. When running the challenge, I have more than once actually seen teams give in to this fear completely, either giving up and claiming they’ve lost interest, or deliberately sabotaging their efforts to make sure everyone knows they are not taking the challenge seriously. The sad thing is, we learn to fear failure. We don’t seem to have it when we are young children - it comes as the result of social conditioning. And more often than not, it holds us back.

  1. Children focus on the task at hand

I once set this challenge for a group of grad students and they wasted almost a third of their time arguing over what their team name should be. Then they wasted some more time debating whether they needed a team leader or not, and who that should be. I’ve done this challenge with a senior leadership team and they wasted a large amount of time questioning and challenging the rules and trying to outsmart the game by deliberately misinterpreting supposed ambiguities in the guidelines to give them what they thought would be a competitive advantage.

When adults play games, often we are so preoccupied with strategizing how to participate in the game, and how others perceive our participation, that we fail to focus on the actual task at hand. We read additional meaning and subtext into what we are being asked to do, and it affects how we engage with the challenge. Children don’t waste any time or energy doing that, and take the challenge for what it is, dedicating their full attention to the task. Of course, we all know about the attention span of the average 5-year-old, but when their attention is on something, they become completely absorbed by it and entirely focused on whatever activity or game they are involved in. How often can we say we do that as adults?

  1. Children have a growth mindset

We think it’s cute when small children say they want to be an astronaut when they grow up, and chuckle to ourselves as we write it off as a childish fantasy. But there is something incredibly inspiring about the limitless ambitions of children that we so often overlook. They believe that they can do anything, and put no restraints on their imagination. As adults, it feels like we spend so much of our time thinking of reasons why something won’t work, why it isn’t possible, identifying potential obstacles, that we rule out possibilities without trying them. Children on the other hand believe that anything is possible, and their natural curiosity drives them to extraordinary achievements.

My daughter is growing up in a trilingual household, happily learning three languages at once along with all the other things toddlers pick up as they grow in confidence and independence. Small children never doubt their capacity to learn and master new and wonderful things – that’s something else we teach them as they grow into adulthood. It is this bad habit of dismissing ideas before we have tried them that limits our creative achievements as adults, and ultimately, holds us back from realising our potential. When running the game, I see people trying ideas that don’t work, and watch them become increasingly exasperated rather than more curious and determined. I hear “no, that won’t work” as ideas are rejected out of hand without being tried, and it feels like such a waste.

  1. Children are natural collaborators

There is nothing more enchanting than watching a group of small children immersed in imaginative play together, constructing weird and wonderful fantasy worlds and scenarios that play out with rich characters and complex narratives. Their capacity for creative collaboration seems infinite, and it is so natural and spontaneous that as adults we can only observe in awe. Of course, children fight and argue, but all is forgotten almost instantly and they are back to playing together as before. Why is it that as adults we struggle so much to recreate that level of effortless, fluid collaboration? Children don’t think about or plan how they interact together, they just do, and it’s completely instinctive.

So, why as adults do we suddenly have to start thinking about how we collaborate? Why do we need to plan how we are going to work together, and question the value we bring to a collaborative exercise, and the value others are bringing? And why is it so easy to get hung up on how and what we contribute? Perhaps as adults we focus too much on our differences as opposed to our commonalities, and become convinced that collaborating with other human beings is hard, when it’s in fact the most innate, natural thing in the world. Maybe it’s our egos getting in the way, perhaps it comes back to our status anxiety, but either way it feels like somehow on our journey towards adulthood we manage to lose something incredibly value that we never quite get back. If we could find a way to get back the innate ability to interact with each other that we had as children, we would be more effective collaborators and build taller spaghetti towers.

  1. Children don’t overthink or over plan

As we grow into adults we start to recognise the importance of thinking things through, making appropriate plans, and sticking to what we have agreed. Even when it starts to become clear that the plan isn’t working, that we miscalculated somewhere along the way, we are loath to stray from the plan, and as result we often adjust or amend faulty plans too late. In my Agile coaching, I come across this all the time, and it is often a significant hurdle for teams to overcome. 5-year olds are unburdened by this, and as a result are far better at pivoting and re-planning when the need arises. They also ascribe little value to planning in the first place, which of course means they start building their towers much quicker.

The reason I think this is particularly relevant to this challenge is that, in most cases, building a tower out of spaghetti, sticky tape and marshmallows is not something we have any experience or expertise in, and therefore attempting to theorise and plan how we are going to construct the tower is of very little value, because we have no real reference points to base our planning on. As adults, we consistently overestimate our ability to solve unfamiliar problems through relying on theorising and assumptions. Sometimes the best option really is to just dive right in and see what happens, and of course, children are the ultimate practitioners of this philosophy.

So, what can we learn from 5 year olds? Well it turns out, when it comes to teamwork, innovation and creativity, we can learn an awful lot! Does that mean we should try to be more like 5-year olds when engaging in creative problem-solving? The research says that, yes, we should!

Note that CEOs with their executive admins perform significantly better than the CEOs on their own, which just goes to show the value of having good executive assistants who can help to focus and organise, facilitate effective communication and collaboration, and of course, manage oversized egos. And of course, unsurprisingly, having significant experience and expertise relevant to completing a task (in this case being an architect or engineer) is a huge advantage, and we mustn’t fall into the trap of relying too heavily on new, original ‘out of the box’ thinkers when taking on complex challenges at the expense of listening to established expertise.

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