I remember a project I worked on many years ago. I was leading a large team and had a very large budget. I chose John to co-lead with me because we got along so well. I am a creative, spontaneous, and enthusiastic person and John was pretty much the same. The team loved working with us. We were fun, engaging, and motivating.
And the project was a huge waste of money.
The problem was that John and I got caught up in the novelty of our work. We were too focused on developing new ideas and making sure people were happy. But we never got any work done. We were a total failure.
In hindsight, this failure probably could have been predicted. Our styles were too similar.
In fact, if you look at any group of people who effortlessly work well together, odds are the individuals share a lot in common with each other. They might have similar backgrounds, expertise, interests, or personalities. This is natural.
Contrary to conventional wisdom, opposites do not attract.
When it comes to interpersonal relationships, we are attracted to people who are like us. Psychologists have extensively documented the power of similarity when it comes to liking other people. In general, we tend to like those individuals the most who seem the most similar to us.
Therefore we surround ourselves with people who share similar thought processes, similar energy levels, and similar personalities.
But as I learned on that project many years ago, partnering with people who are too much like you can lead to disastrous results.
Contrast that experience with the project that immediately followed. Learning from that failure, I brought in a great planner, Ray, as my wingman on the team. I made sure I treated him as my equal. He was in my face on nearly a daily basis, forcing me to stay on plan and budget. I wanted to avoid the rigors of his planning as I felt that they were limiting and restrictive. But he was unrelenting.
In the end, although we may have annoyed each other, it was one of the most successful projects I’ve ever worked on. In fact, it was one of the most successful initiatives of the firm, one people still talk about nearly fifteen years later.
From this project, I learned something incredibly important:
“The person you like the least may be the person you need the most.”
Although Ray annoyed me on nearly a daily basis, it was because of his persistence that we were so successful. Left to my own devices, I would be chasing “bright shiny objects.” He forced me and the team to stay focused on the plans, deliverables, and timeframes. The combination of my creativity blended with his rigor was the key to success.
Although it is human nature to want to be around people who are like you, in order to be successful you need to partner with people are different. You need to surround yourself with people that complement your abilities and illuminate your blind-spots.
When you have a difficult problem to solve, instead of going to some someone who thinks like you, find someone who is your opposite. Yes, it is quite possible that that individual will annoy you and not give you the answer you secretly want. But that might be the very reason they have something powerful to contribute to you.
Stephen Shapiro is the author of three books, a popular innovation speaker, and is the Chief Innovation Evangelist for Innocentive, the leader in Open Innovation.