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 Lawmay 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.
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. Top Next Issue
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