Conway’s Law

In this post, I have put together some material I have collected to give an overview of Conway’s Law.

Conway’s Law is about organizations, communication, and systems (products). It describes how these three fundamental elements are intertwined giving a powerful summary of our environment and its behavior.

We should always be aware of Conway’s Law and play it to our advantage.

Back in 1968 M. Conway wrote in a paper
“Organizations which design systems are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.” (M. Conway)

In 2008, Harvard Business School published a paper supporting the observation that Conway made 40 years earlier.

Conway’s Law is a valuable reference to understand the history of a company and improve its future actions, from a too often neglected perspective.

The main purpose of a company is to achieve a specific business goal. A key element is the communication that supports the collaboration needed to pursue that goal. How many times have we seen reorganizations of teams or whole companies fail to deliver the expected result? Whose fault is it? How can we improve?

A common culprit is the siloed organization. The vast majority of my colleagues see silos as a bad thing but we accept them as part of the game.

An idea is to design the organization for Conway’s law. This could help to move towards cross functional teams, better communication, and leaner products.

How do we break the silos? By leveraging the communication structure (not the reporting structure) and this is a goal  in the range of what a team can accomplish without having to redesign the entire organization.

A couple of examples are Spotify where collaboration across teams is a fundamental value driving the company and Amazon where Bezos gave a very precise direction to the teams in order to achieve the desired enterprise architecture.

Another suggestion comes from Thoughtworks. A technique “blip” in the tech radar of 2014 and 2015 was the Inverse Conway Maneuver which basically tells to design your organization for Conway’s law.Although this is not current anymore in the new radar edition it is still worth exploring.

We can also look from a different perspective: the product. There are several technologies available to enable an organization (or a small team) to leverage Conway’s law. Containerization, microservices, modern communication tools like Slack or Facebook’s workplace are all going in the direction of a more fluid and interconnected environment.

These products and technologies can also shape the organization its communication. A good example on how the technology can be a driver for change is the DevOps movement. It started as a technology-driven change which is now mature enough to be considered a good practice to organize teams.

We have seen that each element of Conway’s Law can influence the other two. This can be used to our advantage whenever we have to decide how to adapt our tools/organization/communication to pull all together towards the end business goal.



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