What We Can Learn About Business Collaboration From Famous Creative Pairs



We’re individuals, but only to the extent that individuality is, paradoxically, the sum of our social interactions.

The idea of the lone genius makes for a good story. Van Gogh locked away in his studio, Freud in his study, Jobs tinkering in the garage. Like Rodin’s The Thinker, our mental picture of creativity is that of the solitary creator, hunched over in thought.

Today, the idea of the lone genius is unraveling. The study of networks shows that we are small units embedded in, and influenced by, sprawling social webs. Van Gogh, born in 1853, emerged with the rise of modernism. His contemporaries were Monet and Degas, Pissarro and Cezanne. Freud lived in fin de siècle Vienna, alongside Gustav Klimt, Arthur Schnitzler, and Carl von Rokitansky. Jobs grew up in Silicon Valley, perhaps the most innovative hub in human history.

In Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson advances the idea that milieu plays an overlooked role in individual creation. The English coffee house not only replaced a depressant (alcohol) with a stimulant (coffee), it encouraged collaboration, which jump-started the English Enlightenment. We’re individuals, but only to the extent that individuality is, paradoxically, the sum of our social interactions.

Yet each perspective—the individual genius and the creative network—miss a primary component of creative output: the dyad.

Yesterday, Joshua Wolf Shenk published Powers of Two: Finding the Essence of Innovation in Creative Pairs*, a portrait of famous creative pairs and an investigation into the psychology of collaboration.

Vincent van Gogh relied on his brother, Theo. “Though Theo never picked up a brush,” Shenk writes, “it’s fair to identify him—as Vincent did—as the co-creator of the drawings and paintings that are among the most significant in history.” Freud famously bonded with Wilhelm Fliess and Carl Jung. Steve Jobs accomplished his greatest work with Steve Wozniak and, two decades later, Jonathan Ive, Apple’s design guru. Silicon Valley is filled with creative pairs: Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Paul Allen and Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg.

What is it about pairs? It’s a long answer (Shenk identifies six stages pairs move through) but one characteristic stands out. Pairs are fluid and flexible. “When even one more person is added to the mix, the situation becomes more stable, but this stability may stifle creativity, as roles and power positions harden. Three legs make a table stand in place. Two legs are made for walking or running.” It’s the human friction—the push and pull, the conflict, the contrast—that ignites our creative impulses.

In fact, “the last thing a pair wants is total stability.” While intimate creative pairs seem like two distinct units melded into one—I’m imagining the two circles of a Venn diagram moving toward each other like an eclipse—Shenk emphasizes that “the pair’s potential arises in the first place from fundamental differences in temperaments or styles or backgrounds or modes of thinking.” Brin and Page, for example, immediately bonded on a tour Brin led in the spring of 1995 for Stanford grad students. Hours later, they were arguing like “two swords sharpening each other.”

Unlike most professional relationships, where avoiding confrontation and politeness is paramount, creative pairs thrive from honest criticism, and even vehement disagreement. Each individual knows this: temporary conflict will not tear their bond apart. If anything, the opposite is true. Like the mythological figure Hydra who gained two heads every time it lost one, creative pairs benefit from setbacks. What doesn’t permanently break the bond makes it stronger.

For anyone who works in an office, this insight is Shenk’s most actionable piece of advice. “Negative interactions may have positive outcomes. A criticism or rejection that at first feels like a bee sting may be regarded later as more like the poke of a doctor’s needle. It’s the same pain in the moment, but it may eventually seem medicinal when one comes to appreciate what it provoked.”

Book Mentioned in this Post

Tags: business strategies, collaboration, innovation, joshua wolf shenk, psychology of collaboration, sam mcnerney, team management, team performance

blog comments powered by Disqus