This morning I had a conversation with a scientist who had just returned from a day trip to a collaborating lab in an adjacent state. It wasn’t just for meetings: She's a principal investigator with funding from three major government agencies, but she took along samples and supplies and spent the day in the laboratory. Working mainly with graduate students there, she made some scientific progress—the usual, incremental sort. But the most important progress she made, she says, was in relationships. After the visit, the collaboration felt more solid and real.
"It really helps to invest in the collaboration," she tells me. It was clear from context that by "invest" she meant spending time with people, getting to know them and working together toward a common goal. In the era of Skype and instant messaging, it's easy to rely too much on electronic interactions—but they don't have the same impact as working face to face. Standing at the same bench or whiteboard, rolling up your sleeves, and doing real work together help deepen the mutual human commitment that is at the heart of collaborative work.