The creativity of pairs - Canadian Government Executive
Bookshelf with Harvey Schachter
February 2, 2015

The creativity of pairs

When you think of creativity and innovation in government, John Lennon and Paul McCartney probably don’t spring to mind. Neither worked in government and, indeed, they were anti-establishment types who you can imagine sneering at “government bureaucrats.” But the two were enormously creative – you probably have caught yourself humming or singing along to their tunes – and their role as the dynamic dyad within a fabulous foursome is an important model to help understand innovation.

Our folklore is about innovation coming from a lone wolf. Edison, Michelangelo, or Steve Jobs. People who magically came up with innovative offerings. Sometimes we recognize that’s a distorted image, knowing they worked with others, and that takes us toward the theory of innovation as coming from networks – a collection of people who might find themselves in the same era and place, be it the coffee shops of Enlightenment London, the campus at Pixar, or the Internet open source movement that produced Linux.

But essayist Joshua Wolf Shenk insists Lennon and McCartney are a better example of the social nature of creativity. “The pair is the primary creative unity,” he writes in Powers of Two.

Sometimes a partner in the duo is essentially invisible, as with Tiger Woods and his caddy Steve Williams. Usually both are highly visible, as with Lennon and McCartney. The partnership impulse can be serial, as with Steve Jobs, who in fact was not a lone genius but over the years had a series of pairings, notably with Steve Wozniak and Jonathan Ive.

Shenk says the myth of the lone genius traces back to the Enlightenment, grew popular in the Romantic era, and took shape in the contemporary United States, where human nature is seen as the product of the atomized self. But it’s a myth. It neglects and obscures the social qualities of innovation, but is a good story – and we’re suckers for a heroic story. The idea of innovation through networks is basically true but too complex to apply to day-to-day life.

Dyads are common in innovation and offer a model we can build on. We’re probably set up to interact with a single person more deeply than with a group. Pairs arouse engagement and intensity. “The dyad is also the most fluid and flexible of relationships. Two people can basically make their own society on the go. Whenever 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.

Convinced of the importance of creative pairs, he studied hundreds of them, both historical and contemporary. A crucial finding that can help government executives nurture them – or help us take part in a pairing – is the fact they go through six stages:

• Meeting: Sometimes creative pairs are siblings – Wilbur and Orville Wright, or Vincent and Theo Van Gogh, for example – and they meet in the family. But even then common interests and sensibilities are crucial, bringing them together in an intense way. For other dyads the spark is usually an introduction by a mutual acquaintance, an encounter at a place of a common interest, or a seemingly chance meeting that turned out to be driven by a subterranean similarity. There’s a chemistry or electricity. Or as Shenk puts it: “Sometimes you meet someone who could change your life. Sometimes you feel that possibility.”

When Warren Buffett, then a 27-year old investor, was pitching some family friends and the couple gave him $100,000 to oversee he asked them why they were willing to take such a big risk. “You remind me of Charlie Munger,” the husband replied. Two years later, when Munger visited Omaha, the couple suggested they meet. The greatest investment partnership of our era grew from that connection and the duo’s similarity.

Paul McCartney went to check out a band named The Quarry Men and was impressed by its leader, John Lennon. Shenk returns to that song-writing duo many times in the book, probing the convergence of homophily and heterophily in their relationship. Homophily is love of the same and they shared many similarities. “But creative work depends on exchanges across an expanse, a coming together of strangers,” Shenk suggests, and the duo’s differences – the night they met McCartney was a master of the guitar and Lennon didn’t even have his tuned right – are also essential to later success.

• Confluence: Over time the two individuals move beyond mere interest and excitement in each other to something deeper, forming a creative pair. Buffet and Munger lived in different cities, worked in different businesses, and had different investment philosophies. But they talked, learned from each other, after about five years started doing some deals together, and a decade after meeting began talking to each other daily. In 1983, 14 years after meeting they trusted and knew each other well enough to come together.

Lennon and McCartney exemplify the creative confluence of pairs in how they developed songs together. “She was just seventeen/Never been a beauty queen,” McCartney offered one day, sharing some lyrics that had come to him. Lennon countered, “You’re joking about that line, aren’t you?” and his pal agreed it was quite bad. “Just seventeen” was intriguing but “beauty queen” was cliché. What rhymed with seventeen? Then Mr. Lennon had it: “She was just seventeen/You know what I mean.” Innocence and sin, together – and the start of a highly successful song. That’s confluence.

• Dialectics: Shenk suggests that all great wisdom returns to the concept of connected, overlapping opposites, such as the Taoist yin/yang or the Hegelian thesis/antithesis. He sets out three possible arrangements for pairs. In some cases they bring together a star and a director, one in the spotlight and the other offstage. Examples might be Buffett and Munger, Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg, or Martin Luther King Jr. and Ralph Abernathy – in each of those duos, of course, the helper to the star is not completely unknown but receives far less attention. In other cases, as with Lennon-McCartney or Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner, its liquid and container, with one excitable creative person threatening to spill out of control and the other containing the partner for their creative harmony. A final duo is a dreamer and a doer, as with South Park’s Trey Parker, the visionary, and Matt Stone, who organizes their environment for creativity.

• Distance: To thrive the two people need some distance from each other, allowing space to develop distinct ideas and immerse in diverse experiences that can later spark ingenuity. We think of distance as geographic but in fact it can come in many forms. Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre worked in the same café but at different tables. The distance can be in time, as the pair work different parts of the day or take some time apart. Illusionist Penn Jillette sagely notes that often in duos there is a sense of love at the core – whether romantic or otherwise – but his staying power with partner Raymond Teller actually comes from a consistent emotional distance. Sartre and de Beauvoir, a romantic couple, had other lovers and live-in partners.

• Co-opetition: At the height of their work, as is so familiar from Lennon-McCartney, the pairs blend competition and co-operation with each other in what may seem an unhealthy manner but is actually vital. “Sometimes, competition is so subtle that it takes care to even see. Elsewhere it is so conspicuous that it seems strange to call the competitors a ‘pair,’” Shenk observes.

• Interruption: The creative pairing will eventually end, from death if not before. Ironically, often they are driven apart by the same forces that kept them so dynamic. Yet the essence of their creativity stays with them in future endeavours. “They lose, not their spark, but their balance, often due to some critical change in the context around them,” he writes. “And yet, considering how they remain bound up in each other practically and psychologically, we can also say that creative pairs never truly end.”

Lennon and McCartney may seem a long way from your workplace. But if you study the good ideas in your organization, you may discover that you have some creative pairs or potential pairs in your midst. And this book might offer insights in how to make them even more successful.

About this author

Harvey Schachter

Harvey Schachter is a writer, specializing in management and business issues. He writes three weekly columns for the Globe and Mail and The Leader’s Bookshelf column for Canadian Government Executive, and a regular column and features for Kingston Life magazine. Harvey was editor of the 2004 book Memos to the Prime Minister: What Canada Can Be in the 21st Century. He was the ghostwriter on The Three Pillars of Public Management by Ole Ingstrup and Paul Crookall, and editor of Getting Clients, Keeping Clients by Dan Richards. A McGill commerce graduate, Harvey spent more than 15 years in a variety of positions at The Kingston Whig-Standard, including editor and planning and promotions manager. He won two National Newspaper Awards for his writing and a national Owl Award for a marketing program he created at the newspaper.

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At work, we are often trying to satisfy a bundle of expectations, which can be boiled down to those expectations we place upon ourselves and those placed by others. In government, of course, those outer expectations can be powerful, handed down from the public, the minister, and our immediate boss. But we all react differently,...