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HOI research | Pairs in Innovation: How Collaborative Duos Foster Resilience in Crisis

What makes some groundbreaking innovations seem to thrive despite setbacks? A recent study reveals the secret: pairs. When two people work closely together, they create a unique environment that helps them overcome obstacles and continue innovating. Published in the European Management Journal, this research shows how resilience is activated in pairs facing innovation crises.

Innovation crises are inevitable

Innovation is rarely a smooth journey. It’s filled with failures, setbacks, and critical challenges that can derail even the most promising projects. While much is known about how individuals and large teams cope with these hurdles, less is understood about how pairs—two people working closely together—navigate such crises. This study explores how pairs foster resilience, enabling them to bounce back and continue their innovation efforts.

Understanding pair resilience

The research aimed to uncover how resilience is nurtured in pairs during innovation crises. By studying ten pairs from various industries, the researchers sought to understand the dynamics that help these duos recover from setbacks and continue pushing the boundaries of innovation. They wanted to see what makes pairs so effective in maintaining momentum and overcoming critical challenges.

"One of the key difficulties we faced was capturing the intimate and often unspoken dynamics within these pairs,” says Roberto Verganti of the House of Innovation, one of the study's authors. “Resilience in innovation is not just about strategies and processes; it’s deeply rooted in the personal and emotional connections between the individuals.”

Key research findings

  • Intimate environment: Pairs create a safe, intimate space that fosters resilience by allowing compassionate witnessing and mutual support.
  • Role clarity and flexibility at the same time: In times of crisis, pairs exhibit relational redundancy by alternating leadership and providing emotional and operational support to each other. When one of the two loses steam, there is not doubt on who should step in: the other person.
  • Strong commitment. What makes pairs resilient to crisis is a strong personal commitment. Not to the idea. But to the other person. A pair is not a “small team”: if a person gives up there is no collaboration anymore and the project dies. So what happens with pairs is that the idea may change (which often is healthy for innovation) but the duo continues, by pivoting towards a more meaningful direction. 

The future of pair-based innovation resilience

This study highlights the importance of pairs in fostering resilience during innovation crises. By creating a supportive and flexible environment, pairs can navigate challenges more effectively than individuals or larger teams. Future research should explore how these dynamics can be applied in different contexts and how organizations can facilitate the formation of resilient pairs to drive innovation.

"The resilience we observed in these pairs helped them overcome technical challenges and strengthened their social bonds, fostering a culture of mutual support and shared success. This has significant implications for how we structure teams and collaborations in the workplace." — Roberto Verganti

Meet the researchers

  • Paola Bellis: School of Management, Politecnico di Milano
  • Roberto Verganti: Stockholm School of Economics, House of Innovation; Faculty at Politecnico di Milano and Harvard Business School
  • Daniel Trabucchi: School of Management, Politecnico di Milano
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