A forthcoming book by Joshua Wolf Shenk entitled ‘Powers of Two’ makes an interesting case for what the author calls the end of the isolated, single ‘genius’. He sustains that behind the single name there is always a second name. He quotes Paul McCartney and John Lennon together with a string of other duos such as Monet and Renoir, Freud and a mostly unknown Wilheim Fliess or Martin Luther King and Ralph Abernathy. I think that not all the examples are equally strong, but there is a compelling case to explore the potential ‘power of the duo’, what he calls ‘the elemental collective’, ‘the root of social experience and creative work’. I’ll need to wait for the publication to see how far it goes. At the time I am writing, the book has not been released yet and I’m reflecting from a piece in the International New York Times.
The pair, however, does not need to be invented or discovered. It’s always been there. The police cops we see on films and TV series come in pairs (‘partners’ in American style, sometimes playing ‘bad guy’ and ‘good guy’) as they have in other parts of the world. In my home country, Spain, the pair of police people (‘la pareja’) was the language used to refer to police in general. If you called the police, you would always expect ‘la pareja’ to come. Examples could be extended to many other examples of human activity, including priests, nuns and missionaries.
In organizations, the uptake of ‘the duo concept’ has been more timid, largely because of the obsession with efficiency and the terror of duplication. Two people assigned to the same job is a waste in traditional managerial terms, period. So any attempt to look into potential benefits is blocked form the start. However, health care, in some parts of the world and some hospitals, has been experimenting with ‘pair of nurses’ looking after the same individual for a long time. More recently the work done in Menlo Innovation, in California, has been portrayed in a book by its CEO Richard Sheridan entitle ‘Joy Inc’. The software company uses the pair as the unit of work.
It seems that when explored and used, once the barrier of the ‘inefficiency’ claim has been overcome, the benefits are significant. Knowledge sharing, high productivity, perhaps speed, social learning etc., they all come up positively again and again.
‘The pair’ would deserve a good double blind study in your organization. Translation: choose an area or division of some size, install the pair as a unit and see how it goes compared with others. There is another reason why I would do this. It’s the very concept of experimentation, something we do very bad in organizations where default positions are very strong, and unconventional thinking often unwelcome.
It’s a good organizational hypothesis in search of brave experimenters with an open mind.