Pairing Up: The Advantages of a Team of Two at Work

Alone we can do so little; together we can do so much.” – Helen Keller, American deaf-mute activist.

Pairing Up: The Advantages of a Team of Two at Work by Laura StackThough we rarely think of them as such, a duo is still a team, and it can have many advantages. When your team is only two people, it’s much easier to communicate and agree on everything, from project requirements to what to have for lunch. Small(er) teams also tend to produce more per capita (per the two-pizza rule). However, two-person teams must be more careful about avoiding groupthink and poor decision-making.

Some business duos have become household names: just a few examples include Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak in computing, Sheryl Sandberg and Mark Zuckerberg in social media, Warren Buffett and Charlie Munger (the silent partner) in investing, and Sergey Brin and Larry Page in online sales. So teaming with another person whose talents complement your own to create a “dynamic duo” can be a great idea—even when you’re already part of a larger team. Many organizations function on a buddy system anyway, often fostering mentoring relationships.

Is a one-on-one team-up in your future? Unless you work best as a lone wolf, it’s an idea worth considering—whether you want a mentor or would prefer to formalize a relationship with someone you already work well with.

Points to Ponder 

Any close, day-to-day relationships has its stresses that can tear a duo apart, so both parties involved must be sure they want the relationship. You also need to decide if the partnership will be short-term or long, formal or informal. Either way, such relationships must be tightly focused, specific, and goal-oriented. While you’re not committing to the depth of a marriage, you still need to ensure you’ve got a partner you get along with, whose strengths offsets your weakness and vice versa. Before you even step into the work arena with someone, ask all the right questions about their capabilities, goals, and level of commitment. All bets are off if your manager just throws you together, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make a serious effort to get along and perform at a high level.

Needless to say, all two-person work partnerships are not created equal. In their 2015 book ­Team Genius, Rich Karlgaard and Michael S. Malone defined a “taxonomy” consisting of more than a dozen categories of two-person teams, from those that work together very closely to others where each person remains essentially self-contained. Among other things, they warn managers not to pair up workers based only on compatibility or intuition, because “some of the most successful pairs don’t always fit our expectations.” Sometimes, there’s an indefinable something that sparks a synergy, independent of age, skill-sets, temperament, or character.

For managers, Karlgaard and Monroe recommend 10 points to consider when creating creative duos:

  1. Identify a need.
  2. Prep the candidates.
  3. Determine the goal.
  4. Establish expectations.
  5. Manage them with the right intensity.
  6. Stay observant.
  7. Create opportunities.
  8. Keep a record of success and failures.
  9. Manage transitions.
  10. End well.

The same goes for teams created by team members themselves, whether formal or informal. By informal, consider a duo consisting of two people who share an office or cubicle, who team up mostly for convenience since they’re working on the same project anyway. The partners can perform tasks for each other—from running to the printer to checking each other’s work to grabbing coffee—just because it makes life easier for both.  There needn’t be a partnership recognized by others on the team. The same goes for informal mentorships, when one person takes a newbie under her wing and shows him the ropes, especially if this takes place largely on their own time.

On the other hand, some partnerships make so much sense they’re worth formalizing so the partners can put their heads together at the spur of the moment, especially if one does work that goes straight to the other for the next step in the workflow process. In such a case, it makes sense to go to the manager and get their blessing before shifting schedules and seating arrangements. Before you go to your manager, however, have the applicable Karlgaard/Monroe factors worked out, especially the exit strategy—both involving the natural end of the project, and how you end the relationship if it goes sour.

To Partner or Not 

Unless you know you need the help or think a colleague could benefit from your skills, you need not partner with anyone, especially if you feel more comfortable as part of a larger team. But sometimes it’s logical to pair up. You can be part of a larger team and still partner with another person for specific tasks or knowledge sharing, in the same way teams tend to be “cells” within a larger organization. What matters is that you all work together for the benefit of the organism as a whole.

© 2015 Laura Stack. Laura Stack, MBA, CSP, CPAE is an award-winning keynote speaker, bestselling author, and noted authority on employee and team productivity. She is the president of The Productivity Pro, Inc., a company dedicated to helping leaders increase workplace performance in high-stress environments. Stack has authored seven books, including her newest work, Doing the Right Things Right: How the Effective Executive Spends Time (Jan. 2016). She is a past president of the National Speakers Association, and in 2015 was inducted into its exclusive Speaker Hall of Fame (with fewer than 175 members worldwide). Stack’s clients include Cisco Systems, Wal-Mart, and Bank of America, and she has been featured on the CBS Early Show and CNN, and in the New York Times. To have Laura Stack speak at your next event, call 303-471-7401 or visit her website.



  1. At my previous company we experimented with this as well. Wish I had this article sooner! Thanks!