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What is Conway's Law?

Last updated

15 January 2024

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Good communication is essential in any business. It can mean the difference between success and failure, bring colleagues closer together, and make sales and marketing campaigns more effective.

However, communication is complex. To keep the company ship sailing at full speed, you need to take a deeper look at the way your internal structures function.

IT theories can help analyze and reframe internal systems, including streamlining and improving communication. Conway's Law is one such theory. It is a software engineering theory with the power to reframe entire communications systems and internal structures.

What is Conway's Law?

Conway's Law is the theory that organizations will design systems that copy their communication structure. It is based on the reasoning that, for a product to function, everyone involved in its design must communicate with each other to ensure compatibility across the board.

Put simply, Conway's Law means complex products can end up "shaped like" the organizational structure they are designed for.

Melvin Conway, who introduced this idea, might have intended his theory to be applied in software and tech industries, but it has gained broader use. Project managers and team leaders can reference Conway's Law when designing internal systems and communication protocols.

Where did Conway's Law originate?

Melvin Conway is the originator of Conway's Law. He was a computer scientist and hacker who first put forward his theory in a 1967 paper titled "How Do Committees Invent?" The paper was first submitted to Harvard Business Review. After the publication rejected his paper, Conway approached Datamation, a noted IT magazine, which published it in 1968.

The paper, featuring Conway's thesis, states "any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization's communication structure." It didn't take long before the theory, dubbed "Conway's Law," started making the rounds in IT circles. It gained widespread popularity when it was cited by author Fred Brooks in his often-referenced 1995 book, The Mythical Man Month.

Why is Conway's Law important for product development?

Communication and collaboration are important in all stages and areas of your business. In product development, where multiple teams work together within one organization, it is particularly important.

Conway's Law highlights how vital good communication is to a business, and how it can make a difference in product development. If effective communication is lacking while refining and preparing a product for launch, the results suffer, and customer satisfaction could plummet.

Promoting transparency and collaboration within your product development team will help ensure the project goes smoothly. It can also lead to a product that better suits your customers' needs.

Collaboration doesn't just help your projects to be more successful and productive. It also keeps your employees happy. According to Forbes, one of the best ways to retain employees is to create a culture of engagement, where every employee is encouraged to contribute and offer their insight.

Are there downsides to Conway's Law?

Conway's Law isn't perfect. It doesn't take into consideration the fact your team members could have drastically different communication styles. Not only could they have very different ideas about what the result of the project could look like, but they might struggle to reach common ground.

There could also be a propagation delay. This happens when there's a holdup in the information exchange between various departments, leading to poor or even nonexistent communication. Not only could this make change difficult but it might also lead to a delay in the project or product launch.

Blind leadership is another factor to consider. This happens when a designated leader or person in a position of power makes rash decisions without considering how they will affect others. This approach is dangerous, killing productivity and leading team members to believe their opinions and feelings don't matter.

How to create a team structure with Conway’s Law

By applying Conway's Law in your organization, you can build stronger teams and enhance communication. To do this, you'll need to understand the four primary organizational structures:

  • Functional

  • Flat

  • Divisional

  • Matrix

Functional

A functional structure is created by organizing your employees based on their specialties. It's often used by small businesses but can work for companies of any size.

Flat

Many startups use a flat organizational structure because it promotes equal leadership across the board, regardless of seniority or specialty. The advantage of a flat structure is that it gives your employees a sense of ownership and responsibility, although it can occasionally complicate matters and require HR intervention.

Divisional

A divisional structure dedicates entire teams of employees to specific objectives or goals. It's common in large businesses or corporations that require bespoke teams for each product or service.

Matrix

The matrix organizational structure involves employees working across departments and for multiple specialties. These employees might even report to several different managers. The matrix structure can be complicated, so it's best used within organizations that have strong, established communication processes.

How is Conway's Law relevant for product managers?

Conway's Law is a valuable baseline for managers and leaders across industries, but it is particularly relevant for product managers.

Product managers often serve as the primary point of contact within their team or group. They stimulate conversation and foster dialogue amongst other team members, encouraging effective communication across the board. Per Conway's Law, product managers play a vital role across the organization, with their success or failure relating directly to the overall communication structure.

When excellent communication is achieved, a whole host of problems can be avoided. Product managers who prioritize strong communication and employee input will likely enjoy more success within their role, facilitating smoother product launches and contributing to the company's revenue growth.

How to foster better communication

There are many ways to build stronger teams, but developing better communication can be more challenging. Fortunately, for leaders who are willing to invest time and effort, the rewards are tremendous.

Here are a few ways to foster better communication within your organization.

Frequently collect feedback

Employees want to be heard and to know their managers care about their feelings. Make it a priority to collect employee feedback regularly.

You can collect feedback via:

  • Surveys

  • Anonymous feedback forms

  • In-person groups

Decide what makes more sense for your organization and what would make your employees feel more comfortable. However you opt to collect feedback, be sure to put the insights you receive into action.

Invest in training and continued education

When employees and team members are given space to learn and grow, they will thrive. To that end, provide opportunities for your employees to receive additional training for their roles and invest in continuing education for your team, to empower them to reach their full potential.

Take time to team-build

Work is important, but so is getting to know your employees. Organizations that invest in regular team-building activities are more likely to enjoy greater employee retention and more productivity. Think creatively when it comes to team-building and don't be afraid to ask your team for ideas and opinions. They might prefer a casual lunch out of the office rather than a pizza dinner at work.

By regularly incorporating ways to build strong communication, you'll be using Conway's Law to your advantage. It isn't always easy to change, and big shifts in structure can take a lot of time, but by putting in the effort, you'll reap the rewards.

FAQs

What are the types of team topology?

There are four fundamental team topologies:

  • Stream-aligned team: aligned to work from one particular segment

  • Enabling team: can detect missing or needed capabilities

  • Platform team: a grouping of other team types that provides one final product 

  • Complicated subsystem team: built based on strong technical skills

What are the three laws of Agile?

Agile is a global movement that started in software development. At its core, it allows organizations to cope with continuous change. There are dozens of Agile variants, but they all share three basic laws:

  • The law of the small team

  • The law of the customer

  • The law of the network

Together, these laws allow you to generate more value with less work.

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