Two is company but three could be a crowd

Martin White's picture


If you want to learn about effective collaboration there is probably no better case study than The Double Helix by James Watson, the story behind the discovery by Watson and Francis Crick of the helical structure of DNA and the implications for heredity. The book may do an injustice to some of the people involved in the story, notably Rosalind Franklin, but that does not diminish the story itself. All the way through there are examples of often serendipitous collaboration through the networks that existed within Cambridge University. Science progresses through collaboration, as a recent paper by Yuxiao Dong and his colleagues reminds us.

James Watson returns to the subject of collaboration in a later book, Avoid Boring People. One of the sections is entitled “Work with a team-mate who is your intellectual equal”

“The best scientific pairings are marriages of convenience in that they bring together the complementary talents of those involved. An intelligent team-mate can shorten your flirtation with a bad idea. Once you have three people working on a common objective either one member effectively becomes the leader or the third feels a less than equal partner. Three people also makes it hard to assign credit”

Watson goes on to note that people naturally believe in equal partnerships of successful duos, and quotes Rodgers and Hammerstein. About the only three-person group that immediately comes to my mind is Crosby, Stills and Nash, and they quite quickly went on to become Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young!

We seem to be falling into the trap of assuming that the more people collaborating together in a team the higher will be the chances of success. This is certainly the story from collaboration software vendors which highlight how easily you can network yourself with just about anyone in your organisation. I’m not at all sure that collaboration (in terms of working towards a common objective) scales in that way. If I look back at my career I can see a succession of immensely stimulating duos, notably with Howard McQueen over almost a decade of challenging projects. I can think of many duo partnerships of mine at the current time in which the success of the relationship could probably not survive a third member, no matter how close the personal ties might be. Do you recall a wonderful song from Bill Withers entitled The Two of Us?

Cherish the duos you work with in your organisation. Mutual dependence can accomplish great outcomes.

Martin White




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