One of the most demanding and complex tasks in a large virtual teams project is that of interface management. This work is typically undertaken by someone with a title such as ‘interface manager’ or ‘coordination manager’, and is the person, or group of people, with responsibility for ensuring each location is aware of what each other location is doing, that all work is coordinated and that any issues are surfaced quickly and managed appropriately.
The interface manager role typically appears on larger projects where the work is sufficiently complex that the individuals in each location are unable to do the coordination personally, the interface manager then gets assigned the task of understanding what their own location is doing and their state of progress, and of sharing that information with the interface managers from other locations. On really large and complex projects this role is one of the most critical as they have responsibility for coordinating typically large, complex shared tasks, managing physical and technology interfaces and resolving project issues either personally or by raising them to the project manager or director for arbitration and final decision.
Typical interface manager profiles
Despite its criticality, the task of interface management is often one that is not taken seriously by the management of the project. Consequently it is often assigned to either a junior member of the team or to someone who may not be personally suitable or interested in the task, but who is seen as having sufficient “free time” to take on the task.
Assigning the role to a junior team member, without appropriate support from senior personnel, can lead to things being missed as the junior member may not have the depth of experience needed to understand the nuances of some issues, also, junior personnel may not be taken so seriously by their co-located and virtual colleagues, leading to an undermining of authority.
Assigning the work to someone who just happens to have free time is also a common mistake. This person, if they are suitable for the role may later become busier with their normal role and neglect the interface role, and if they are not suitable for the role, such as they are not a strong communicator, they may well simply neglect the role.
Attributes of the right interface manager
The most suitable personnel for interface management roles are those who have the following attributes;
- Strong interpersonal communicators
- Respected by their co-located colleagues
- Respected by their virtual colleagues, especially interface managers at other locations
- Conversant with all aspects of the project or able to engage with others who are
- Have a strong understanding of cross cultural communication
- Strong but fair negotiators
Personnel with these skills are, however, often in demand for multiple roles in a project team and will therefore often be assigned to tasks seen as being more immediate. The value they can bring to a project by working as interface managers is often far higher than almost any other but the causal relationship between their role and the project outcomes are usually hard to see.
Some factors influencing successful interface management
Five key positive factors which will influence successful interface management are;
- The successful interface manager must have a high level of self awareness, this attribute will enable them to better empathise with the issues faced by their virtual team colleagues and to see in themselves how they would react to similar issues.
- The successful interface manager will know their virtual team colleagues, and most particularly the other interface managers well. This will extend beyond the functional business relationship to a personal friendship or understanding, allowing them to work more closely and learn to rely on their colleagues.
- The successful interface manager will know the overall scope of the project, the schedule and budgetary requirements. Most specifically they will know their own office’s requirements and commitments so they can best negotiate with the other offices.
- The successful interface manager will be seen as knowledgeable and authoritative by all of their project colleagues and will be trusted in all discussions. Without a high level of trust and professional recognition they will struggle with many aspects of their role.
- The successful interface manager will be flexible in their dealings with bot their co-located and virtual colleagues, but, they will not compromised items which form part of the critical path for the project. The interface management needs to be flexible enough to adapt to changing needs but still rigid enough to maintain commitments.
Conversely, successful interface managers will also not display any of the following attributes;
- Successful interface managers will not disrespect their colleagues regardless of the issues that may need to be resolved between locations. Trust between virtual team members is critical to a successful outcome and any disrespect will immediately damage or destroy that trust.
- Successful interface managers will not apportion blame to others but will work in a positive and proactive way to resolve issues and problems. It can be weary for some to use blame as a defines mechanism when things go wrong, this will also start to destroy that fragile trust between offices.
- Successful interface managers will not be intolerant with their virtual colleagues, they must learn to temper their reactions to events and assume the best in all of their dealings.
- Successful interface managers will not be unpredictable when dealing with their other offices, they must remain consistent in both their technical dealings and even in things like punctuality for meetings.
- Successful interface managers also must not compromise on issues that are critical to the outcome of the project. They can and should be flexible as far as shifting scope between offices where appropriate but the overall outcomes of the project must not be compromised.
Successful interface management
Done properly, interface management can be a hugely rewarding and enjoyable role in a project team, it can deliver a predictable outcome for the project and maintain a reasonably controlled level of risk exposure in the execution of the work. But, to be done properly the role must be given the right level of respect by all parties. The project manager must appoint strongly suitable personnel to the roles and treat the interface managers with genuine respect, the interface managers must be committed to their role and give it their every attention.
As specialists in virtual teams Ulfire is well positioned to assist projects with establishment and ongoing management issues, offering a balance of practical experience and academic research we can help you avoid a number of potential issues. Please contact us for any assistance you may need with your virtual teams.
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