From Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn to George Burns and Gracie Allen

What Creative Yin-Yang Collaborations Teach Us

Watching the Broadway show, “Beautiful,” about the life of Carole King, I could not help but think about the creative collaborative process she and her then-husband, Gerry Goffin went through. Together they penned classics including the chart-topping songs, “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman,” “Up on the Roof,” “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?” and “One Fine Day.”

What did they have that made this collaboration so successful? She largely composed the music, and he wrote the lyrics. She was the yin to his yang.  They were very different, but together they created a whole. This whole catapulted them into a space inhabited by very few. Ultimately, it even took them to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Though their differences eventually led to friction and separation, what they gave to the world as a collaborative team was glorious.



There are many other such examples that one could point to, like the film and comedic performance team of Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. The musical partnership between Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein as well as that of Andrew Lloyd Weber and Tim Rice would also be included on the list. We also can’t forget the opera team of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, the television comedy team of George Burns and Gracie Allen, the jazz collaborators Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, and of course, those other two songwriters….  John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

Each individual was stronger when connected to their partner and leading them  to achieve unimagined success and an impressive body of work. Their collaborations led to astonishing creativity and results that likely never would have happened had they worked on their own.

How should organizations consider this in the context of their own efforts to spark and cultivate collaboration within their teams? How can you influence a more successful and productive outcome? (Gaskell, Adi, 2017) What can these creative duo success stories teach you and your team that will help you achieve better results?

The Harvard Business Review case study, “The Yin-Yang of Management: The Quest for Dynamic Equilibrium,”explores the process of being able to confront and capitalize upon opposing forces in what is termed as “dynamic equilibrium.” The authors assert that leaders face opposing tensions continually, like that of collaboration vs. control. Through what the authors call “the paradox perspective,” leaders can successfully address these tensions that are inherent in organizations (Smith, Wendy, Lewis, Marianne, 2014).

This may well be what King and Goffin were able to do. They understood their opposing forces while embracing that paradox. But, unlike these songwriters, many organizations try to lessen friction and have everyone get along in pursuit of creating harmony. Is this how truly creative people work together? Is this an unrealistic, potentially futile and ultimately unproductive notion?  Can we really get the most out of people and they from themselves, without friction and controversy, resulting in the rise of new thinking? In fact, how much newness and creativity comes out out of everyone agreeing with each other?

Best-selling author Liane Davey gives us some valuable insights in her article, “If your team agrees on everything, working together is pointless,” (Harvard Business Review, 2017).

“Collaboration is crumpling under the weight of our expectations. What should be a messy back-and-forth process far too often falls victim to our desire to keep things harmonious and efficient. Collaboration’s promise of greater innovation and better risk mitigation can go unfulfilled because of cultural norms that say everyone should be in agreement, be supportive, and smile all the time. The common version of collaboration is desperately in need of a little more conflict,” (2017).

Thom Kennon, founder of alternative strategic consultancy Free Radicals, uses a unique collaborative process. “The approach we take with our teams is one that is provocative, incentivizing and enabling people to feel comfortable about being uncomfortable together. To actively exploit the tension between divergent thinking and ideas. Then that tension turns into epiphany –and the result can be that rare moment of a truly new idea, concept or strategy.”

But how we do we keep people on track in an organizational setting when conflict arises, given the low tolerance for controversy? One ‘Saturday Night Live’ creator points the way. “When executive producer Lorne Michaels started ‘Saturday Night Live’ in 1975, most observers thought the show would bomb. For writers, Michaels had assembled a bunch of comedians who hardly knew each other. Most had never worked on a television show before. They were thin skinned, tended to date each other and break up, and were antisocial and anti-establishment. What’s more, the show’s writer’s room was a competitive place: When one person’s skit was put on air, another writer’s idea would get cut. Television executives thought it would be a nightmare.” (Duhigg, C, 2016).

How did Michaels achieve success?

He had two ground rules:

1. Everyone in the room had a voice

2. Everyone had to actively listen to each other. 

He even kept detailed notes of meetings to make sure that happened (Duhigg, C, 2016).


Clearly, collaboration can also have its frustrations. A Harvard Business Review study in 2016 highlighted the many issues that come with collaboration and organizations institutionalizing it among their employees, especially in an increasingly global environment. The study deemed it “collaborative overload,” (Cross, Rob, Rebele, Reb, Grant, Adam, 2016). Notably, the study found that, “In most cases, 20% to 35% of value-added collaborations come from only 3% to 5% of employees.” This is a sobering statistic, but it underscores the need for collaboration and the ways organizations approach it to be reexamined.

There are numerous lessons we can cull from great creative teams, such as how they worked together and what they were able to accomplish. As leaders think about creating collaborative cultures and environments for their organizations, they should also take a look in the mirror and be mindful of their own ability to engage in ideation and creativity. A 2017 poll found that CEOs agreed that creativity is the single most important ingredient a leader should have (Carucci, R., 2017). But accordingly, “it is less clear how to cultivate it,” (2017).

As organizations engage in dialogue and discussion to become more collaborative, alternative approaches should be considered. These approaches need to take into account the Yin-Yang and how people can, through disagreement and conflict, come together to create something much more interesting, authentic and meaningful. Like King and Goffin, Laurel and Hardy, and Lennon and McCartney, the outcome might just be legendary.

*Images Courtesy of the Duke Ellington Society and Jewish Currents.

Also published on the Institute for PR