As much as we like to think of ourselves as individuals, we send just as much time interacting with others as we do alone.
In fact, the most common type of interaction in our daily lives occurs with just one other person. As solitary as we imagine ourselves to be, we are just as much binary creatures.
One reason for that is biological. We mate with one person at a time; we typically speak with only one person at a time (even if we are addressing thousands); and we even smell each other’s pheromones individually. Archaeological evidence suggests that this has always been so, and that the pair-bonding breeding pattern is the single most dominant cultural phenomenon for most of the million years hominids have walked the earth—and certainly for modern humankind’s 20,000-year history.
In other words, to be human is to be a member, both serially and simultaneously, in a succession of pairs—numbering perhaps in the hundreds—over the course of a lifetime. It’s hard to imagine something that consumes so much of our existence to be anything less than genetically advantageous.
Pairs come in an amazing number of forms. In our new book, Team Genius, we set out to create a taxonomy of pair teams—and came up with a dozen, from perfect “soul-mate” partnerships to pairings of opposites, inside/outside pairs, mentor/student pairs, maverick/guardian pairs, etc. Including sub-types within these groupings, we probably could have identified a dozen more.
Navigating so many types of relationships can seem a daunting, especially when you consider the challenge of choosing the right one to confront a particular problem. But simply noting that all of these types exist is a good start. Based on experience, case studies, and recent scientific research, here are three things to remember when forming pair teams:
- All pairs are not alike.
- Don’t recruit pairs based solely on compatibility or by intuition.
- Some of the most successful pairs don’t always fit our expectations.
Members can be very different in terms of age, talent, character, and temperament. Indeed, one team member may not even be physically present and still pull their weight in a pair.
One advantage to the wide array of pair types is that, like building blocks, they enable the creation of an almost endless number of larger groups.
Obviously, it isn’t enough just to categorize the different types of two-person teams. In reality, the far more important challenge is to apply that new understanding in productive ways. That is, you need to:
Keeping in mind that smaller teams usually perform better, ask yourself: Is a duo the best team for the job? And what is that job? Is it embedded in the larger enterprise, with specific duties, or will it work on the fringes of the organization to break new ground?
If the role of the pair will be tightly circumscribed, you’ll want to create the team deliberately, rather than let members pair off on their own. Figuring out who is the best fit for the team can be just a matter of reviewing résumés, while letting people pick their own partners is much more hit-and-miss.
An often-ignored threat to successful pairings—especially those composed of individuals with different, even opposing, personalities and skills—is the possibility that pairs won’t recognize or respect one another’s achievements. They may not even take each other seriously. It’s up to the manager to orchestrate these introductions in order to nurture mutual respect. This is particularly important when assembling larger groups consisting of many two-person teams.
In some cases, you know exactly what you want a duo to do—come up with a new feature for an existing product, prospect and close a particular sales target, open a new office, improve service response times, etc. In other cases the goal may be to improve the performance of the team members themselves. And in still others, the goals may be more nebulous (e.g. “discover a new market into which the company can expand its offerings”) but no less vital.
At the heart of managing pairs—and all teams, for that matter—is to match the character of the team to the task assigned to them; that is, don’t bet the company on an unproven pair of opposites, or give an open-ended assignment to a by-the-book pair.
In most businesses, this is the easiest step. And, indeed, if you have a pair of scientists who work well together and they are pursuing a particular design goal, then establishing performance benchmarks is pretty straightforward. It’s a lot more challenging when you are talking about giving a troubled pair an assignment to save their careers, or asking a pair of corporate superstars to work together to get the company into a new market.
Finding the right manager is often as important as selecting the right team. A team may work best under a tough taskmaster who doesn’t worry much about the emotional health of the team. By comparison, the manager of another type of team may just establish targets and get out of the way. Another type of team manager mostly just needs to make sure the duo stays on track. And for still other teams, the primary task is to make sure the team is a positive force and not a destructive or anarchistic one.
A lot of especially powerful pair-teams are almost impossible to create by decree; instead, they often create themselves, in many cases spontaneously. Sometimes they are the product of circumstance, such as in response to a deteriorating or dangerous situation. Other times they are the product of ineffable factors (personality types, backgrounds, interests, maybe even pheromones). This presents team managers with arguably their greatest challenge, and it all but demands they work backwards; you need to be perpetually vigilant, spotting successful teams when they emerge, then placing them into situations that best fit their skills.
Even when dealing with spontaneously formed teams, there are ways to improve your odds of success. One is to bring people together and see what sparks. Ironically, this is most likely to happen at two extreme moments—when the enterprise is doing very well and has the luxury of experimentation, and when it’s in trouble and is willing to take unprecedented risks to stay alive.
Too often, teams either succeed or fail at their task and then split up, leaving little record of their existence. Yet every team is distinct, a combination of personality types, structural archetypes and track records. It’s time to start keeping track of all of these variables—and to being learning how to use them over time to create new teams with ever-greater chances of success.
Finally, all teams (including pairs), have lifecycles. They can behave very differently at the start, during the peak of their activity, and as they approach retirement. By the same token, a team can’t be managed the same way throughout each of these periods. A manager who isn’t sensitive to those changes may begin brilliantly, only to fail unexpectedly later on. A smart manager will identify these evolutionary steps as they occur and adjust communications, motivation, reward, and punishment accordingly.
What’s true for larger teams goes for pairs as well: How the partnership ends is just as important as how it begins. Ceremony, recognition, transition—these are all crucial components of the proper end to a partnership, especially if you want to work with either of these individuals again.
Rich Karlgaard is the publisher of Forbes magazine; veteran Silicon Valley journalist Michael S. Malone was a founding contributing editor of Fast Company. This article was adapted from their new book, Team Genius: The New Science Of High-Performing Organizations (HarperBusiness, an imprint of HarperCollins, 2015).