Conway’s Law: the Co-Evolution of Business Organization and Product Design

Written by Sean Murphy. Posted in 5 Scaling Up Stage, Rules of Thumb, skmurphy

Bruce Sterling in a 1994 speech “The Virtual City” made some interesting points about the interaction between the co-evolution of communication technology and cities.

The telegraph, and the telephone, which followed on its heels in about forty years, made the urban skyscraper possible. Not physically possible — the skyscraper was physically possible as soon as you had iron girders, curtain walls and steel-cage construction. But the telephone made the skyscraper informationally possible. Imagine how incredibly difficult it would be to run a business inside a skyscraper without electrical communication. It would be physically impossible to ship all those necessary messenger boys up and down through the structure.

There are very few high rise buildings in Silicon Valley, most of the technology firms end up in campuses full of buildings no more than four or five stories tall. Most startups tend to be in one and two story buildings.  Winston Churchill observed that “We shape our buildings, and afterwards our buildings shape us.” I have worked my entire career in one and two story buildings in the urban sprawl of Silicon Valley. I wonder if the software that comes out of firms working in highrises in downtown San Francisco is markedly different from what’s produced in the industrial parks and campus office buildings of Silicon Valley.

In “How do Committees Invent” Melvin Conway’s observed what come to be known as “Conway’s Law.”

The basic thesis of this article is that organizations which design systems (in the broad sense used here) are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations. We have seen that this fact has important implications for the management of system design. Primarily, we have found a criterion for the structuring of design organizations: a design effort should be organized according to the need for communication.

Another formulation of Conway’s Law is that communication problems in an organization will be manifested in their finished products. One example of this is from Tracy Kidder’s “The Soul of a New Machine” has a scene where Tom West, the leader of the Data General effort to develop a 32 bit mini gets a look at the VAX, DEC’s competing machine:

“Looking into the VAX, West had imagined he saw a diagram of DEC’s corporate organization. He felt that the VAX was too complicated. He did not like, for instance, the system by which various parts of the machine communicated with each other; for his taste, there was too much protocol involved. He decided that VAX embodied flaws in DEC’s corporate organization. The machine expressed that phenomenally successful company’s cautious, bureaucratic style. Was this true? West said it didn’t matter, it was a useful theory.”

Some lessons from Conway’s Law for startups:

  • Attack a much larger competitor at “interstitial opportunities” that will require two or more divisions to collaborate to be able to compete with you.
  • Be alert to a pattern of software defects that indicate team communication problems that you have overlooked (or been ignoring as not important).
  • Whenever there is more than one way to accomplish the same thing, do a root cause analysis to make sure that the relevant parties are collaborating and not each going their own way.

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