Everyone loves a good lone-genius story: Archimedes hunched in a bathtub, waiting for his Eureka moment; Steve Jobs tinkering with computer prototypes in his garage; Elon Musk smashing space-travel paradigms in his rocketship hangar. But what if our notion of the legendary, lone innovator is rooted more in myth than reality?
A new book by Los Angeles-based writer Joshua Wolf Shenk argues that some of the best innovation and creativity arises out of collaboration in pairs, and that even when we buy into tales of a solitary mastermind, a silent partner is often lurking quietly in the background. Jobs may have received most of the headlines, but Shenk points out that Apple wouldn’t have existed without co-founder Steve Wozniak. And most of the groundbreaking work done by Apple at the height of its popularity wouldn’t have happened without his design guru, Jonathan Ive.
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Investors, marketers and (yes) media commentators gravitate toward the myth of the lone genius because it makes a great story: research shows that even when two individuals are credited equally with an accomplishment, the achievement typically gets credited to only one partner, and usually the better-known one. But Shenk’s book, Powers of Two: Finding the Essence in Innovation in Creative Pairs, suggests that managers and leaders should consider assigning more work in pairs. Working in a “dyad” tends to be more productive and creative than working in a larger group, even a team of three, Shenk says.
The reason? Pairs are fluid and flexible. They push and pull each other through both competition and co-operation (Shenk calls it “co-opetition”) and bring out the best in each other—even, or perhaps especially, when friction arises. (Think Lennon and McCartney, a creative duo he explores exhaustively in his book.) His evidence is largely anecdotal, but compelling: “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,” he writes. “Three legs make a table stand in place. Two legs are made for walking or running.”
The tech world is full of creative pairs—Sergey Brin and Larry Page, Paul Allen and Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, Mike Lazaridis and Jim Balsillie—though examples aren’t limited to Silicon Valley. FourQuest Energy, ranked Canada’s fastest-growing company on this year’s PROFIT 500 list, was launched by two co-founders who each consider the other invaluable to the company’s success. Even legendary moneymaker Warren Buffett suggests that when market-watchers hang on his every word, what they hear may not be his own brilliant insights, but rather those of his business partner, Charlie Munger. “Charlie does the talking,” Buffett has said. “I just move my lips.”
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So if you’re inclined to go the lone genius route, consider taking on a partner instead. Shenk doesn’t advocate any particular pairing of personality types, but says the dyads with the most potential exhibit fundamental differences in temperaments, styles , backgrounds or modes of thinking. And if those differences lead to scrapping, all the better. “Negative interactions may have positive outcomes,” he writes. A jab that might seem destructive can ultimately provoke inspiration. Take McCartney and Lennon’s famously tense relationship: While McCartney was noodling away at a new song, chirping “Getting better all the time,” Lennon responded with a laconic “It couldn’t get no worse.” McCartney’s response (according to Shenk)? “Oh brilliant. This is exactly why I love writing with John.”
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