Interfaces and interdependencies

The phrase ‘interfaces and interdependencies’ is one I hear more and more in organisation design work.  Last week someone asked me what the difference is between them, why they’re linked and do they require different design considerations?

Looking purely at definitions it’s relatively easy to see the difference between the two concepts:

Interface: Common boundary where direct contact between two different cultures, devices, entities, environments, systems, etc., occurs, and where energy, information, and/or material is exchanged.

Interdependence:  Dependence of entities such as people or countries on each other.

The linkage of interface and interdependence comes into play, particularly in work-flows, because there are handover points in most flows and these handover points are at a common boundary.

Imagine a relay team, racing.  The first runner carries the baton.  At a determined point he/she hands the baton to the next runner, and so on.  The team’s success is down to each runner’s ability to maintain speed and efficient handovers.  The team members are interdependent in their ability to win the race. Their skill at managing the interface – the point of passing the baton – can give them a critical advantage.  Watch an excellent TED talk on issues around creating smooth interfaces in an interdependent process:  too often we try and put controls around them when encouraging co-operation would yield better results.

The increasing references to interfaces and interdependencies are due to four factors:

First, erosion of hierarchical siloed ways of thinking about organisations. See, for example Stanford Business School’s blog Rethinking Hierarchy in the Workplace, which tells us ‘When you look at real organizations, having a clear hierarchy within your firm actually makes people turn on each other when they face an outside threat.’

Second, acceleration of tech enabled networks of connected individuals, communities, organisations and societies that help us navigate and manage the complexities of our world.  Look at the 10-minute RSA Animate, The Power of Networks for more on this.   The ideas in the Animate are taken in a different direction in Ranjay Gulati’s Harvard Business Review piece.  He says, ‘With the explosive growth of the internet and social media, people now enjoy innumerable channels for sharing concerns and ideas in their personal lives. Compared with these expansive platforms for self-expression, the workplace can feel downright stifling. The freedom of the outside world is banging at the corporate door, demanding to come inside.’

Third, recognition that customers want a seamless end to end service (customer journey). This means carefully designing the flow of work processes that cross organisational boundaries, either within an organisation or across multiple organisations – as often happens in the delivery of citizen services,  where, for example ‘separate teams are often responsible for different chunks of a full end-to-end journey like becoming a childminder or setting up a company.’

Fourth, development of tech/human interactions which are becoming increasingly common and give rise to multiple complex questions.  On this read, for example, a research paper Robots Working with Humans or Humans Working with Robots? where researchers state that ‘When developing and designing the intuitive interfaces for industrial robots, such as hardware, software and system integration, robot experts in the manufacturing industry usually do not clearly recognize the “social” implications of their concepts. The relation between intuitive design, and the possibility to enable and improve the qualification of workers operating the equipment is still large unknown.’

Designing organisations grappling with these four factors inevitably means learning how to design with a focus on the interfaces and interdependencies.  There is no single ‘how to guide’ for this.  But there are some useful pointers, some with a focus on interdependencies, others with a focus on interfaces, and others combining discussion of both.   Beyond the resources mentioned above, here are ten others that I’ve found helpful:

Nicolay Worren has an interesting slide share on interdependencies, suggesting five dimensions of interdependency.

A paper Project interfaces and their management, by Alan Stretton.  He has reviewed some key writers on organisational interfaces and from this ‘Over thirty project interfaces are identified, and are broadly classified and accumulated into a table. This could be seen as a basic checklist for project managers who are establishing and/or managing this component of project integration.’

In a blog Harold Jarche (drawing on Curtis Ogden’s work) explains four attributes of networked thinking saying ‘Network thinking can fundamentally change our view of hierarchical relationships.’

A research article Coactive Design: Designing Support for Interdependence in Joint Activity  explains that ‘Coactive Design is a new approach to address the increasingly sophisticated roles that people and robots play as the use of robots expands into new, complex domains. The approach is motivated by the desire for robots to perform less like teleoperated tools or independent automatons and more like interdependent teammates. In this article, we describe what it means to be interdependent, why this is important, and the design implications that follow from this perspective’.

The book The DNA of Strategy Execution is about ‘the modern PMO’ and has a whole section (7) ‘Connect’, that discusses networks, silos, interfaces and interdependencies, including a piece on pooled, sequential and reciprocal workflows and a useful template for managing interfaces and interdependencies.

I’ve often recommended A bridge too far? How boundary spanning networks drive organizational change and effectiveness .  This paper explores boundary spanning and networks, the authors saying –  ‘Just as our understanding of informal networks has grown in the past decade, so has our interest in a closely related area: boundary spanning.  Boundary spanning leadership is defined as the capability to create direction, alignment, and commitment across boundaries in service of a higher vision or goal.

If you want a theory read the blog on modularity theory and why it matters, ‘Modularity Theory (also known as the Theory of Interdependence and Modularity) is a framework for explaining how different parts of a product’s architecture relate to one another and consequently affect metrics of production and adoption.’ …

An article on project interdependency management, gives down to earth advice:  ‘Contrary to the opinion of some project managers, no project is an island unto itself. Like it or not, most projects depend on other projects or initiatives to deliver some enabling capabilities that are essential to their successful implementation. Most also contribute some enabling capabilities to other projects or initiatives.’

The HBR article How to Make Sure Agile Teams Can Work Together which is much less about ‘agile’ and much more about collaborative working,  discussing cross-functional teams  that ‘often bump up against misaligned incentives, hierarchical decision-making, and cultural rigidities, causing progress to stall or action to not be taken at all.’

If you’re a project manager, the study –  Management of Project Interdependencies in a Project Portfolio which finds that ‘project portfolio management is acknowledged by both theory and practice to be a highly challenging task which is even amplified by the presence of project interdependencies. Managing project interdependencies is found to be an area of weakness for contemporary portfolio management, which so far remains under investigated but emergent field within general portfolio management theory. … The study examines the benefits of project interdependency management, the negative effects of failed project interdependency management and the related challenges.’

What are your shareable resources on interfaces and interdependencies?  Let me know.

Image: Hard (required) versus soft (opportunistic) interdependence relationships