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Conway’s Law – The Rest of the Story.. and How To Fix It

December 14, 2017  |  Posted By: Marty Abbott

The Law that Almost Wasn’t

Conway’s law had a rather precarious beginning.  Harvard Business Review rejected Conway’s thesis, buried as it was in the 43d paragraph of a 45-paragraph paper, on the grounds that he had not proven it.

But Mel had a PhD in Mathematics (from Case Western Reserve University – Go Spartans!), and like most PhDs he was accustomed to journal rejections.  Mel resubmitted the paper to Datamation, a well-respected IT journal of the time, and his paper “How Do Committees Invent” was published in 1968.

It wasn’t until 1975, however, that the moniker “Conway’s Law” came to be.  Fred Brooks both coined the term and popularized Conway’s thesis in his first edition of the Mythical Man Month.  It has since been one of the most widely cited, important but nevertheless incorrectly understood and applied notions in the domain of product development.

Cliff’s Notes to “How Do Committees Invent” (the article in which the law resides)

Conway’s thesis, in his words:

… 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.

Conway calls this self-similarity between organizations and designs homomorphism.  Preamble to the thesis helps explain the breadth and depth:

… the very act of organizing a design team means that certain design decisions have already been made, explicitly or otherwise

Every time a delegation is made … the class of design alternatives which can be effectively pursued is also narrowed.

Because the design which occurs first is almost never the best possible, the prevailing system concept may need to change. Therefore, flexibility of organization is important to effective design.

Specifically, each individual must have at most one superior and at most approximately seven subordinates

Examples. A contract research organization had eight people who were to produce a COBOL and an ALGOL compiler. After some initial estimates of difficulty and time, five people were assigned to the COBOL job and three to the ALGOL job. The resulting COBOL compiler ran in five phases, the ALG0L compiler ran in three.

There are 4 very important points, and one very good example, in the quotes above:
    1)   Organizations and design/architecture and intrinsically linked.  The organization affects and constrains the architecture - the opposite is not true.
    2)   Depth of an organization negatively effects design flexibility.  The deeper the hierarchy of an organization, the less flexible (or alternatively more constrained) the resulting architecture.
    3)   We will make mistakes and must organize to quickly fix these.
    4)   Team size should always be small – which also has an implication to the size of the solution part a team can own (think Amazon’s re-branding of this point of the “2 Pizza Team” (author’s side note – read Scalability Rules for how this came about).

Important corollaries to Conway’s law suggest that if either an organization or a design change, without a corresponding change to the other, the product will be at risk. 

Common Failures in Application of Conway’s Law and How to Fix Them

There are five very common failures in organization and architecture within our clients, the first four of which relate directly to Conway’s points above:
    1)   Organizations and architectures designed separately.  Given the homomorphism that Conway describes, you simply CANNOT do this.
    2)   Deep, hierarchical organizations.  Again – this will constrain design. 
    3)   Lack of flexibility.  Companies tend to plan for success.  Instead, assume failure, learning, and adaptation (think “discovery” and “Agile” instead of “requirements” and “Waterfall”).
    4)   Large teams.  Forget about these.  Small teams, each owning a service or services that the team can support in isolation.

There is a fifth violation that is harder to see in Conway’s paper.  Too often, our clients don’t build properly experienced teams around the solutions they deploy.  Success in low-overhead organizations requires that teams be cross functional.  Whatever a team needs to be successful should be within that team.  If you deploy on your own hardware, you should have hardware experience.  If you need DBA talent, the team should have direct access to that talent.  QA folks should be embedded within the team, etc.  Product managers or owners should also be embedded in the team.  This creates our fifth failure:

    5)   Functional teams.  Don’t build teams around “a skill” – build them around the breadth of skills necessary to accomplish the task handed to the team.

Conway’s Parting Shot and Food for Thought
Noodle on this:  Conway identified a problem early in the life of a new domain.  Yet what was true in Conway’s time as a contributor to the art is still true today, over 50 years after his first attempt to forewarn us:

Probably the greatest single common factor behind many poorly designed systems now in existence has been the availability of a design organization in need of work.

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AKF Partners helps companies ensure that their organizations and architectures are aligned to the outcomes they desire.  We help companies develop better, more highly available and more highly scalable products with faster time to market and lower cost.  Give us a call or shoot us an email.  We’d love to help you achieve the success you desire.

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