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Conway’s law: how can organizations use it to their advantage?

PostsStrategy & planning
Georgina Guthrie

Georgina Guthrie

August 31, 2022

Have you ever worked in a place that had dysfunctional meetings? You know the type. Conversations go round and round, and after an hour of this, no one’s any the wiser about what they’re supposed to be doing. And after the meeting, nothing gets done because the systems in place just aren’t set up for change.

Well, there’s a reason for this.

According to Conway’s law, the structure of a team will inevitably reflect the organization’s communication structure. And that will affect the work you produce. In other words, if you want to know how well a company’s doing, look at how well the workforce communicates.

What is Conway’s law?

Conway’s law states: “any organization that designs a system will inevitably produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization’s communication structure.” While Conway is specifically talking about information systems, the concept is often defined more broadly to apply to other operations.

Computer scientist Melvin Conway first proposed Conway’s law in 1967. Since then, everyone from software developers to sociologists has cited the theory’s merits in their organizational analysis.

The general idea is that organizations tend to design systems that reflect their internal communication structures. So, if a company has a centralized hierarchy, they’re likely to build a centralized system. If a company has a decentralized structure, they’re likely to build a decentralized system.

Interestingly, Conway’s law also suggests that it’s very difficult for organizations to change their communication structures. So, if you want to change how a company communicates, you must change how it’s organized. Change isn’t fast or easy, but it can be done.

Why is Conway’s law so important?

Conway’s law highlights the importance of communication and collaboration within an organization. Without effective communication, silos form, and product development suffers.

Conversely, if you promote transparency and encourage idea-sharing among everyone in the company, you’ll see higher levels of innovation and better product outcomes.

Conway’s law…

  • Highlights the importance of effective communication within an organization. If everyone isn’t on the same page, it’ll be difficult to innovate, grow, and create a system/product that meets everyone’s needs.
  • Suggests that organizations should be careful when outsourcing work to other companies. If the communication between the two organizations isn’t clear, it can lead to problems with the final product.
  • Can be used to explain why some projects are more successful than others. If the team working on a project has good communication and a well-designed system, they’re more likely to create a hit.

So, what does all this mean for you?

If you’re working on a project, it’s important to think about how everyone will communicate and what kind of systems will best support that communication by prioritizing collaboration.

And if you’re just curious about why some projects are more successful than others, consider whether or not the team had good communication and a well-designed system.

What are the downsides of Conway’s law?

It’s good to know what you’re up against. So, let’s take a closer look at some of the limitations of Conway’s law.

  • Propagation delay: this occurs when there’s a delay in communication between different parts of an organization. Different departments or teams are working together on a project and communicating poorly or becoming siloed. Once this happens, change becomes extremely difficult.
  • Inflexibility: if you aren’t communicating well and lack systems to facilitate better collaboration, everything slows down. As a result, change —⁠ whether forced or desired — is near impossible.
  • Ineffective communication: different people may have conflicting ideas about what the final product should look like. Without effective communication, it can be difficult to come to a consensus and create a system that everyone is happy with. The result? A messy product that doesn’t fully succeed at satisfying any of your objectives.
  • Blind leadership: blind leadership happens when someone in a position of power makes decisions without considering others. This results in production problems and an unhappy team that feels unheard and undervalued.
  • Elitism: divisions can form when decision-makers think the opinions of those lower than them in the organization don’t matter. Not only does this organization miss out on potentially brilliant ideas, but the junior staff may feel less valued, leading to high turnover and low productivity.

5 ways to overcome organizational challenges

Here’s how to grapple with the limitations of Conway’s law and use that knowledge for good.

1. Make good organizational communication a priority

First, it’s important to have effective communication within an organization. Everyone should be on the same page and have a clear plan for communication,⁠ including remote workers. Look at the structure of your teams, for starters. Do you have a predominantly top-down management style but want more innovation? Then, it might be time to consider blending your current management structure with a bottom-up approach.

You may also want to break up your teams into smaller groups to foster agility. Or, if you’re struggling with silos, building cross-functional teams could be the way to go. You’ll also want to ensure you have tools to foster visibility and collaboration.

2. Ensure feedback for leaders

Second, leaders need to solicit feedback from everyone involved in a project. No one is perfect, and no manager is so high and mighty that they won’t benefit from hearing feedback from junior staff. Not to mention, managing effectively isn’t possible without understanding other roles in the company. In short, hearing feedback as a leader is an absolute must if you want full visibility and junior staff that feel valued.

3. Invest in training and tools

They say a bad worker blames their tools. But the fact is, if you don’t have tools (or they’re ineffective), then your organization’s performance will suffer.

Focus on fine-tuning your communication tools and the people who use them. Workshops, project management software, or other collaboration tools are all good options. And remember to put some real thought into this: don’t just accept the latest fad or buzzword because everyone else is doing it. Choose something that works best for you and your team.

4. Have the proper documentation

When creating and implementing a new system, proper documentation is essential. Without it, team members may be confused about the project goals, how they should be implemented, and how the final product should look. Lack of clarity will lead to frustration, wasted time and resources, and even project failure — a project manager’s worst nightmare. The bottom line? Have documentation processes in place and the tools to make them easy.

5. Avoid unnecessary meetings

One of the biggest time wasters in any organization is unproductive meetings. They can be a huge drain on everyone’s time and energy, and frequently, they don’t accomplish anything. Meetings are also expensive (you can work out just how expensive using this meeting cost calculator). If you’re going to have a catch-up, make sure it’s well-organized and has a purpose. Otherwise, it’s probably not worth having.

6. Be patient and open

So, you work in a large organization with old and unwieldy systems in place? Be patient; change doesn’t happen overnight. So long as you’re all committed to the task and actively working on all of the above, you’ll make it for the long haul.

Conway’s law: how project management software can help

Whether or not you agree with Conway’s law, it’s clear that organizations shouldn’t ignore the impact of communication structures. To create products that serve your customers well, it’s crucial to foster a workforce that’s empowered to ask questions, present new ideas, challenge decisions, and solve problems.

Putting the right systems and tools in place will help you accommodate the many different types of workers in your organization. Project management software can boost transparency and collaboration across the entire business. With Backlog, our project management tool, you can do the following:

  • Create a shared workspace where team members can communicate and collaborate
  • Allow team members to share and archive files and documents
  • Get real-time updates and track projects
  • Comment on tasks and tasks lists as a team
  • Track bugs and merge related issues
  • Share work updates with stakeholders
  • Create and automatically manage workflows

Of course, Conway’s law is just a theory, and it doesn’t always hold. But it’s a useful tool for understanding how communication affects your company — and good communication is something you can’t do without.



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