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
Are 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!
Your comments are welcomeWould 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.
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.
More articles on Workplace Politics:
- When we offer a contribution to a discussion, and everyone ignores it and moves on, we sometimes feel
that our contribution has "plopped." We feel devalued. Rarely is this interpretation correct.
What is going on?
- Power, Authority, and Influence: A Systems View
- Power, Authority, and Influence are often understood as personal attributes. To fully grasp how they
function in organizations, we must adopt a systems view.
- Reactance and Micromanagement
- When we feel that our freedom at work is threatened, we sometimes experience urges to do what is forbidden,
or to not do what is required. This phenomenon — called reactance — might explain
some of the dynamics of micromanagement.
- Projects as Proxy Targets: I
- Some projects have detractors so determined to prevent project success that there's very little they
won't do to create conditions for failure. Here's Part I of a catalog of tactics they use.
- The Utility Pole Anti-Pattern: II
- Complex organizational processes can delay action. They can set people against one other and prevent
organizations from achieving their objectives. In this Part II of our examination of these complexities,
we look into what keeps processes complicated, and how to deal with them.
Forthcoming issues of Point Lookout
- Coming January 29: Higher-Velocity Problem Definition
- Typical approaches to shortening time-to-market for new products usually involve accelerating problem solving. Accelerating problem definition can also help. Available here and by RSS on January 29.
- And on February 5: Unrecognized Bullying: I
- Much workplace bullying goes unrecognized. Three reasons: (a) conventional definitions of bullying exclude much actual bullying; (b) perpetrators cleverly evade detection; and (c) cognitive biases skew our perceptions so we don't see bullying as bullying. Available here and by RSS on February 5.
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:
- Get 2001-2 in Geese Don't Land on Twigs (PDF, )
- Get 2003-4 in Why Dogs Wag (PDF, )
- Get 2005-6 in Loopy Things We Do (PDF, )
- Get 2007-8 in Things We Believe That Maybe Aren't So True (PDF, )
- Get 2009-10 in The Questions Not Asked (PDF, )
- Get all of the first twelve years (2001-2012) in The Collected Issues of Point Lookout (PDF, )
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
- The Power Affect: How We Express Our Personal Power
Many people 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.