Point Lookout: a free weekly publication of Chaco Canyon Consulting
Volume 19, Issue 5;   January 30, 2019: Conway's Law and Technical Debt

Conway's Law and Technical Debt

by

Conway's Law is an observation that the structures of systems we design tend to replicate our communication patterns. This tendency might also contribute to their tendency to accumulate what we now call technical debt.
Bottom: Aerial view of the Forth Bridge, Edinburgh, Scotland. Top: Inside the Forth Rail Bridge, from a ScotRail 158 on August 22, 1999.

Bottom: Aerial view of the Forth Bridge, Edinburgh, Scotland. Top: Inside the Forth Rail Bridge, from a ScotRail 158 on August 22, 1999. A very early steel structure, the Forth Bridge was constructed from 1882 to 1890 using the methods of the day. As described by Erlend Clouston, "Around 4.8m sq ft of metal was sliced by the bridge's engineers into strips of varying slenderness, clamped together by about 7m of the tomato-sized rivets." [Clouston 2009]

To protect it against corrosion, a problem that afflicts all steel bridges, it must be covered with paint. But because the bridge is constructed of so many small parts, scraping and repainting it is a gargantuan task. Indeed, the Forth bridge had become famous for the fact that repainting it has been continuous. By the time the painters complete the job, it has been time to start again. This latest repainting, though, has been done with epoxy, which is expected to last for 25 to 40 years. So we need a new metaphor for never-ending jobs.

Technical debt might meet that daunting challenge. Controlling technical debt in large systems is a never-ending job, possibly because of Conway's Law and the ceaseless change that afflicts organizations.

Aerial view Copyright © Andrew Shiva. Inside view (cc) Lexcie.

In a 1968 article in Datamation, computer scientist Melvin Conway describes a connection between system designs and the social communication patterns of the organizations that create those system designs [Conway 1968]. He says, "…organizations which design systems…are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations." He also observes:

This kind of a structure-preserving relationship between two sets of things is called a homomorphism. Speaking as a mathematician might, we would say that there is a homomorphism from the linear graph of a system to the linear graph of its design organization.

Specifically, for each pair of system elements A and B that interact, there is a pair of groups of people, A' and B', respectively responsible for system elements A and B, which also interact.

According to Conway [Conway 2019], Fred Brooks cited Conway's article in his classic, The Mythical Man-Month [Brooks 1982], and conferred on Conway's insight the name "Conway's Law." It was widely consistent with the state of engineering in the late 20th century, and remains so today, more or less, under the name mirroring [Querbes 2018].

The paradox of Conway's Law and technical debt

Systems large and small, but especially the large ones, tend to accumulate technical debt [Cunningham 1992], which is a collection of unwelcome technical elements that contribute to lower engineering productivity or to a higher probability of defects during development, maintenance, or enhancement efforts, and which we would therefore like to revise, repair, replace, rewrite, create, or re-engineer for sound engineering reasons [Brenner 2017]. And technical debt accumulates in systems even though the organizations that design and maintain those systems have communication structures that are clearly defined. That would seem to contradict Conway's Law. If communication is so well structured, then why do the systems these organizations work on become so chaotic over time?

Resolving the paradox

The chaos that evolves in systems over time might be, in part, a result of Conway's Law. Technical debt has many causes, but surely one of them is the apparently endless stream of reorganizations, early retirements, promotions, terminations, offshoring, onshoring, outsourcing, insourcing, layoffs, mergers, spinoffs, and acquisitions that repeatedly disrupt the communication structures and social relationship networks of the engineers employed in large enterprises.

Following each disruption is a period of adaptation in which these communication structures become orderly again. But when they do, they rarely match the structure of the systems those organizations are charged with maintaining and enhancing. Conway's homomorphism is therefore disrupted. The social communication patterns of an organization that formerly matched the structures of the systems it works on might match them no longer. That mismatch makes for difficulties in sustaining coherence of the design of those systems.

Over time, as a natural consequence of Conway's Law, the system evolves toward creating a new homomorphism — that is, toward matching the new social communication structure. Sometimes it catches up. But then the cycle repeats. Unless the system design is thoroughly updated to restore the homomorphism between the system and the social communication structure, traces of the old remain, and those traces can accumulate to form what appears to be a degraded, chaotic system structure: technical debt.

Generalizing Conway's Law

Conway's Law The chaos that evolves in
systems over time might
be, in part, a result of
Conway's Law
may be only a special case of a more general principle. Conway's Law asserts that there is a homomorphism between the modular structure of a system and the communication structure of the organization that designed the system. But the correspondence might be more than merely geometrical. For example, organizations whose cultures value elegance, or consistency, or quality are more likely to produce systems that exhibit those same attributes. And similarly, if the culture doesn't value elegance, or consistency, or quality, we can expect that culture to create systems that lack those attributes.

And when the organizational culture changes, the systems "try" to match it. If they can't quite keep up, the result is technical debt.

Last words

It's reasonable to suppose that further investigation into the interplay between Conway's Law — or a more general form of it — and the technical debt concept may yield further insights. In the meantime, managers would do well to consider carefully how to preserve Conway's homomorphism when making changes to organizational structures. Go to top Top  Next issue: Grace Under Fire: III  Next Issue

52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented OrganizationsAre your projects always (or almost always) late and over budget? Are your project teams plagued by turnover, burnout, and high defect rates? Turn your culture around. Read 52 Tips for Leaders of Project-Oriented Organizations, filled with tips and techniques for organizational leaders. Order Now!

Footnotes

[Clouston 2009]
Erlend Clouston. "A working life: The Forth bridge painter," The Guardian, July 24, 2009. Back
[Conway 1968]
Melvin E. Conway, "How do Committees Invent?", Datamation, 14:5, 28-31, 1968. Available here; Retrieved January 11, 2019 Back
[Conway 2019]
[Brooks 1982]
Frederick P. Brooks, Jr., The Mythical Man-Month. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley, 1982. Order from Amazon. Back
[Querbes 2018]
Adrien Querbes and Koen Frenken. "Grounding the 'mirroring hypothesis': Towards a general theory of organization design in New Product Development," Journal of Engineering and Technology Management 47, 81-95, 2018. Back
[Cunningham 1992]
Ward Cunningham. "The WyCash Portfolio Management System." Addendum to the Proceedings of OOPSLA 1992. ACM, 1992. Back
[Brenner 2017]
"A policymaker's definition of technical debt," TechDebtPolicy Blog, November 10, 2017. Back

Your comments are welcome

Would you like to see your comments posted here? rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.comSend me your comments by email, or by Web form.

About Point Lookout

Thank you for reading this article. I hope you enjoyed it and found it useful, and that you'll consider recommending it to a friend.

Point Lookout is a free weekly email newsletter. Browse the archive of past issues. Subscribe for free.

Support Point Lookout by joining the Friends of Point Lookout, as an individual or as an organization.

Do you face a complex interpersonal situation? Send it in, anonymously if you like, and I'll give you my two cents.

Related articles

More articles on Workplace Politics:

Patterns of ConversationPatterns of Everyday Conversation
Many conversations follow identifiable patterns. Recognizing those patterns, and preparing yourself to deal with them, can keep you out of trouble and make you more effective and influential.
Bush and Putin hugAbout Workplace Hugs
In the past twenty years in the United States, we've changed from a relatively hug-free workplace culture to one that, in some quarters, seems to be experiencing a hugging tsunami. Knowing how to deal with hugging is now a valuable skill.
"Taking an observation at the pole."The Risky Role of Hands-On Project Manager
The hands-on project manager manages the project and performs some of the work, too. There are lots of excellent hands-on project managers, but the job is inherently risky, and it's loaded with potential conflicts of interest.
The city walls of Dubrovnik, CroatiaProblem Displacement by Intention
When solving problems creates new problems, or creates problems elsewhere, we say that problem displacement has occurred. Sometimes it's intentional.
September 11, 2001 attacks in New York CityLook Where You Aren't Looking
Being blindsided by an adverse event could indicate the event's sudden, unexpected development. It can also indicate a failure to anticipate what could have been reasonably anticipated. How can we improve our ability to prepare for adverse events?

See also Workplace Politics and Problem Solving and Creativity for more related articles.

Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout

Delicate Arch, a 60-foot tall (18 m) freestanding natural archComing November 20: Paid-Time-Off Risks
Associated with the trend to a single pool of paid time off from separate categories for vacation, sick time, and personal days are what might be called paid-time-off risks. If your team must meet customer expectations or a schedule of deliverables, managing paid-time-off risks can be important. Available here and by RSS on November 20.
What an implicit interrogation can look likeAnd on November 27: Implicit Interrogations
Investigations at work can begin with implicit interrogations — implicit because they're unannounced and unacknowledged. The goal is to determine what people did or knew without revealing that an investigation is underway. When asked, those conducting these interrogations often deny they're doing it. What's the nature of implicit interrogations? Available here and by RSS on November 27.

Coaching services

I offer email and telephone coaching at both corporate and individual rates. Contact Rick for details at rbrenmhXARWRMUvVyOdHlner@ChacxgDmtwOKrxnripPCoCanyon.com or (650) 787-6475, or toll-free in the continental US at (866) 378-5470.

Get the ebook!

Past issues of Point Lookout are available in six ebooks:

Reprinting this article

Are you a writer, editor or publisher on deadline? Are you looking for an article that will get people talking and get compliments flying your way? You can have 500 words in your inbox in one hour. License any article from this Web site. More info

Public seminars

The Race to the South Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers

On 14The Race
to the Pole: Ten Lessons for Project Managers December 1911, four men led by Roald Amundsen reached the South Pole. Thirty-five days later, Robert F. Scott and four others followed. Amundsen had won the race to the pole. Amundsen's party returned to base on 26 January 1912. Scott's party perished. As historical drama, why this happened is interesting enough, but to organizational leaders, business analysts, project sponsors, and project managers, the story is fascinating. Lessons abound. Read more about this program.

Here's a date for this program:

The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power

Many The
Power Affect: How We Express Personal Powerpeople who possess real organizational power have a characteristic demeanor. It's the way they project their presence. I call this the power affect. Some people — call them power pretenders — adopt the power affect well before they attain significant organizational power. Unfortunately for their colleagues, and for their organizations, power pretenders can attain organizational power out of proportion to their merit or abilities. Understanding the power affect is therefore important for anyone who aims to attain power, or anyone who works with power pretenders. Read more about this program.

Follow Rick

Send email or subscribe to one of my newsletters Follow me at LinkedIn Follow me at Twitter, or share a tweet Subscribe to RSS feeds Subscribe to RSS feeds
The message of Point Lookout is unique. Help get the message out. Please donate to help keep Point Lookout available for free to everyone.
Technical Debt for Policymakers BlogMy blog, Technical Debt for Policymakers, offers resources, insights, and conversations of interest to policymakers who are concerned with managing technical debt within their organizations. Get the millstone of technical debt off the neck of your organization!
Go For It: Sometimes It's Easier If You RunBad boss, long commute, troubling ethical questions, hateful colleague? Learn what we can do when we love the work but not the job.
303 Tips for Virtual and Global TeamsLearn how to make your virtual global team sing.
101 Tips for Managing ChangeAre you managing a change effort that faces rampant cynicism, passive non-cooperation, or maybe even outright revolt?
101 Tips for Effective MeetingsLearn how to make meetings more productive — and more rare.
Exchange your "personal trade secrets" — the tips, tricks and techniques that make you an ace — with other aces, anonymously. Visit the Library of Personal Trade Secrets.
If your teams don't yet consistently achieve state-of-the-art teamwork, check out this catalog. Help is just a few clicks/taps away!
Ebooks, booklets and tip books on project management, conflict, writing email, effective meetings and more.