Popular music has had its share of successful duos from The Everly Brothers, Sam & Dave, Sony & Cher, Simon & Garfunkel, and Ike & Tina Turner of yesteryear to the White Stripes and Black Keys of modern times. (If I've left out your favorite duo, you can lodge your protest in the comment thread!)
The most interesting fact that jumps out at me is how many of the top duos did not get along with each other. Perhaps this was because there weren’t other team members to buffer or absorb the creative tension between the partners. Yet they prevailed despite their differences. Or BECAUSE of their differences. Conflict was the crucible in which they honed their craft. After all, the sparks of conflict—the friction of opposing viewpoints—can produce passion, determination, competition, and creativity.
For instance, Sam & Dave (“Soul Man”) didn’t speak to each other offstage for 13 years! They kept separate dressing rooms and spoke through third parties. Yet as Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members and Grammy Award winners, Sam & Dave have been the most successful soul duo ever, with multiple gold records to their credit.
Simon & Garfunkel (“Bridge Over Troubled Waters”) were always at each other’s throats over artistic differences yet became the most successful folk-rock duo in history. As fans of The Everly Brothers (“Wake Up Little Susie”)—whose brilliant harmonies set the gold standard for vocal duos in their time—Simon & Garfunkel may have unwittingly replicated the siblings’ fractious quarreling (and frequent breakups) as well as their vocal craft.
Sonny & Cher (“I Got You Babe”), after having a string of hits and a popular TV variety show, ended their marriage and musical partnership due to irreconcilable differences. Same with the R&B duo of Ike & Tina Turner (“River Deep, Mountain High”). Cher and Tina Turner moved on to triumphant solo careers however.
Meanwhile, there have been numerous two-person business partnerships—especially in the computer/IT field—that have been major success stories, including: Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard who started Hewlett-Packard; Paul Allen and Bill Gates who created Microsoft; Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak who founded Apple; and Sergey Brin and Larry Page who launched Google. Except for Allen and Gates, these twosomes got along pretty well with each other, though there was always a healthy dose of creative conflict. But the complementarity of their differences—the fact that their differing perspectives and skill sets made each other stronger—was a huge factor in their early success.
I’ve coached larger business teams more frequently than two-person teams or partnerships, but the lessons are similar. Conflict makes the world go round. The expression of different viewpoints—in a team of any size—must not only be allowed, but encouraged. Creative dissent is a good thing. Of course that dissent needs to be managed and harnessed so it doesn’t blow the partnership apart.
How to manage it? By making sure the partnership has: a big enough game to play that keeps the focus on purpose and goals; ground rules for working together and dealing with differences; and basic communication tools for registering disagreements without getting personal.
Typical business partnerships have hired consultants to help them work through creative and personal differences, but musical duos usually have not. A few bands—such as Metallica—have worked with a “performing enhancement coach” to help mediate and manage their internal conflict, but this practice has not caught on. (It's too bad. I'm available.)
In a future post we can discuss the songwriting partnership of John Lennon and Paul McCartney—a textbook case of creative conflict that could have been better managed in the later Beatle years.
And on another occasion we can discuss my favorite duo: Dunning Kruger. This twosome knows its limits.