Interfaces - A Focus of the Successful Program Manager
A good fisherman can quickly identify another good fisherman by examining the quality of the knots in his or her fishing line. A knot is the weakest point in the system because it connects two different parts of the system where they interface. Knots must be tied with great skill and great care or they will fail under stress.
A good program manager can identify another good program manager by examining that manager’s program interfaces.
Interfaces are the weakest point in the system because they connect different parts of the system. Like knots, interfaces must be created with great skill and great care or they will fail under stress. Unlike the simple challenges of the fisherman, a program manager’s world is filled with complex interfaces. The challenges a single project manager can face include any combination of contractual interfaces, physical deliverables or services being created (hardware, software, etc.), and organizational and/or people interfaces that can be internal or external to the program.
These interfaces must be identified and controlled with a plan. The creation of interface control documents, interface management plans, or whatever interface document title and/or structure that works in the context of your environment is mandatory. Some of these documents may be simple, and some may be complex. Creation of these documents clarifies roles, deliverables, designs, actions, and the like. These documents facilitate communication and, when done well, accelerate the identification and resolution of issues.
Trust but Verify!
The program manager should never assume that this is being done well without verification, and in larger programs it is not uncommon for an individual or organization to be assigned as the interface manager to be specifically responsible for all program interfaces. Failures across interfaces are often the most embarrassing and humiliating because the cause is quickly identified as poor management and/or leadership. When interface failures occur after the planning cycle, the impact on cost and the schedule is not trivial.
Verification means you test it!
Take every opportunity to test technical and/or physical interfaces well ahead of actual implementation. Experts and analysts will try to convince you that a test is not required while emphasizing the cost and schedule savings of forgoing the interface test. If the consequences are high when the interface does not perform flawlessly, insist on the test. I knew a high-level leader who kept a plaque on his desk that told a very simple truth: “One test is worth a thousand expert opinions.” When in doubt, test the interface. When not in doubt, test the interface.