Principle: Everything Fails at the Interfaces

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Last week, I was facilitating an offsite for a technology division of a federal agency. The purpose of the offsite was to welcome a new leader and “norm” as a group (following Tuckman’s Forming-Storming-Norming-Performing-Adjourning model.) The participants were there to talk about their values, operating principles, rhythms, roles and responsibilities, and most importantly, how they communicated and how communication had broken down in the past.

Suddenly and without warning, one of the participants shouted, “DAMMIT! Not again!” After receiving stares and good-natured teasing from his colleagues, he sheepishly explained that his coffee cup had leaked, and not for the first time. Different cups, same leak: the seam at the bottom of the cup had unglued. He apologized for his outburst and said, “Everything fails at the interfaces.”

This sparked a reflective conversation from the group. The principle that “everything fails at the interfaces” is a reminder to technologists to first look for failures at the seams where pieces of technology come together. The principle immediately resonated with me from my days as a builder: in construction: if there’s going to be a flaw, it won’t be in the middle of the wall, or the middle of the floor, or the middle of the ceiling. It will be where the pieces and parts come together.

The principle of “Everything Fails at the Interfaces” became the guiding principle for the offsite. It encouraged the group to remember that, while individuals may be doing good work off on their own, challenges will occur when trying to operate as a team. By extension, individuals may be completely justified in their own head, but when it comes to interpreting the actions of others, the tendency is to react, to make up stories, to pass judgment, and to fall out of partnership.

Groups intuitively know when something’s not working, but may not be able to put their finger on what exactly what’s broken. So they say things like, “We have a communications problem,” or “We need to prioritize,” or “We don’t know what the vision is,” or even, “That guy’s a jerk.” Chances are, what they’re actually experiencing is a failure at the interfaces between each other.