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When and how should managers enable creative pairs at work?

“Jeff and Sanjay…seem to be two halves of a single mind.”

In organizations, it is not uncommon to find two people who enjoy working together. A December 2018 New Yorker article, for example, profiled Jeff Dean and Sanjay Ghemawat, two software engineers at Google, who were “unusually close,” “preferred to write code jointly,” and rose to the top of the hierarchy of coders at Google. While their partnership might not be the sole explanation for their creative achievements, the pair developed routines and practices that allowed them to create successfully and enjoy the creative process in the context of an organization.

Recently, I wrote an article in Academy of Management Review, theorizing a process of intimate co-creation—a process in which two people create together, forming and maintaining a shared interpersonal boundary as they pass ideas back and forth. I argue that this process can enable creativity and potentially serve as catalyst for the development of high-quality relationships.

While the story of Dean and Ghemawat provides an excellent example of intimate co-creation, it also raises another set of questions around the role of organizations in the process. For example, what is the role of managers in enabling creative pairs to form? Should pairs be insulated within the organization? A manager at Google told The New Yorker that “[Dean and Ghemawat] were so prolific and so effective working as a pair we often built teams around them.” When should managers build teams around pairs? What are the costs of doing so? In my article, I argue that pairs can appear exclusive to others, which might create problematic group dynamics. When pairs chose to work more separately, as Dean and Ghemawat seem to have, how should managers respond? In short, how and when should managers help co-workers join; how and when should they help them separate?

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