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The Double-on-Sax Effect: My Secret Formula For Creative Collaboration

My friend Tony and I have worked together for years. During this time he’s worn many creative hats: researcher, copywriter, content advisor, video producer, event stager and of course story teller. For the most challenging and subjective creative assignments, like naming a company or product, we’ve learned that we always produce better results if we collaborate. I always assumed it was a simple case of “two heads are better than one.” But recently Tony shared an insight with me about our collaboration that made a light bulb go on.

His insight was about the strengths we each bring to our creative “odd couple.” He is primarily creative and secondarily analytical, and I am the opposite. This was news to me. But as soon as I realized he was right, I began to wonder, “What is the advantage?” Is there an insight here that helps explain how much better we are as a team than as individuals?

President ClintonPlaysSaxatNewportJazzFest1993

EVEN A PRESIDENT can double on sax (right). President Clinton at the Newport Jazz Festival in 1993. Photo Courtesy of William J. Clinton Presidential Library.

As a result, I developed a theory I call the “Double-on-Sax Effect,” which is a way to think about creative collaboration. (“Double-on-sax” is musician-speak for being able to play one or more instruments in addition to your primary one.) The idea is that if two people collaborative on a creative task, they may produce far better results if each has a secondary skill that complements the other’s primary skill. In effect, the skills are amplified. Here’s a simple way to look at it. Imagine the creative task expressed as distance. Say the distance from problem to satisfactory solution is 50 feet. If each of the collaborators is capable of advancing 30 feet, you quickly know two things. First, neither can reach the goal alone, but second, by working together, they just might succeed.

A possible lesson from this is somewhat paradoxical. Collaborating with someone fundamentally similar to yourself might still yield a better outcome than not—so long as there are some ways that you differ—even if the differences seem secondary or unimportant.

Our experience suggests that tight pairings or small groups of people tag-teaming a creative problem may produce better outcomes than say, the crowd-sourcing approach. With crowd-sourcing there’s a feeling of collaboration, but in reality you’re still picking a winner Darwin-style from individual contributions. This is distinct from the wisdom of crowds concept, in which the crowd’s individual contributions are aggregated into a collective judgment in the form of a group rating, review or decision.


Among tech start-ups there’s a common practice of naming the company or product by getting all the engineers together to brainstorm over cold pizza and diet cherry coke. In my experience, it always generates good vibes and but never a good name.  HR win, marketing fail.  (For more on this, here’s an interesting post by @ProfessorGary.) Part of the reason might be because instead of collaborators with different, complementary views, you have lots of people with essentially the same mindset.  That doesn’t expand the consideration set.

If you’re interested, there’s a great book that leaves my amateur theorizing behind and delves into the science: “Group Genius: The Creative Power of Collaboration,” by Dr. R. Keith Sawyer, a professor at Washington University. In it there are examples of the power of collaborating in small groups, including the story of how “The Lord of the Rings” and “The Chronicles of Narnia” were not so much the result of authors J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis working alone in their lofts, but of the weekly bull sessions they participated in at Oxford in the 1920s. They were more like collaborators and strongly influenced each other’s work.

It’s always difficult and subjective to judge a piece of creative work, whether it’s art or commerce, and whether it was the product of one person or a team.  But there are plenty of examples, in many fields, of outstanding collaborations.  A great recent example is this TED performance of Halvorsen’s “Passacaglia” by violinist Robert Gupta and cellist Joshua Roman (embedded video).  Listening to their performance makes it easy to understand how, despite their great individual talents, a solo by either would be so much less than the duet.

So take a look at your team. Or your extended team. And if you find anyone who “doubles on sax,” whose skills or experience or viewpoint complements your own, why not try your own experiment in creative brainstorming? You might be in for a pleasant surprise.