Leadership, Software Development, Tech Industry, &c

Conway’s Law: A Necessary Precision

A few months ago I revisited Conway’s law, a famous adage that says a system’s design structure mirrors its designing organization’s structure. I found that this wording, while prevalent and generally correct, is incomplete; read on for the resulting expanded viewpoint and some applications.

Quote Conway’s law as written above, and most people will nod in agreement. Now, look it up in Wikipedia or Mel Conway’s own Web site, and you’ll find the following:

“organizations which design systems will [or, ‘are constrained to’] produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.”

Notice the bit about “communication structures”. This goes beyond analyzing boxes in an org chart, and shuffling them around to improve a process or product. In fact, my favorite quote from Conway’s original paper is this:

To the extent that an organization is not completely flexible in its communication structure, that organization will stamp out an image of itself in every design it produces.

Therefore, the communication structure and patterns matter as much, or more, as the hierarchical organizational structure. The latter, with its authority, decision making, incentive and funding aspects, is certainly important, but more so because of its role in enabling and shaping the former. When organizational hierarchy is hard to change, communication structure can provide alternatives. A couple examples:

  • When faced with ongoing challenges, should you consider communication changes before structure changes? What is the change you want to see when you move leaders around, or replace them with new leaders? Would it be simpler or less traumatic to work on improving communication patterns?
  • When faced with a new process or architecture, what communication structures does it require or enable? Can you leverage some of the new communication structures within your existing organization? How does focusing on communication help you assess a potential switch from what you have today?

I must emphasize: this is not fundamentally different or contradictory of Conway law’s essence. There’s plenty of research and concrete examples about the relationship between organizational and system structure. But the communication angle, in my opinion, adds plenty to an already powerful diagnosis tool for team and process improvement.

I strongly encourage you to set aside 30 to 60 minutes, read the whole original paper, and think about its relevance to your situation. How flexible is your communication structure? How does it play into your team and process strengths and weaknesses? What new avenues are opened by intentionally addressing it? I hope you enjoy thinking about this as much as I did!