Conway’s Organizational Structure Heuristic

organizations which design systems … are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations. — Melvin Conway

We often run into examples of Conway’s Law in organizations where silo-ed departments prompt architectural choices that are not supportive of good software design. The multi-functional nature of Agile teams is one way to prevent this from happening. But why not turn that around? If we know that organizational structure influences our software design, shouldn’t we let the rules of good software design inform our organizational structure?

Good software design leads to High Cohesion and Loose Coupling. What happens when we apply those principles to organizational design, and in particular to software teams? High Cohesion is about grouping together the parts that work on the same functionality, or need frequent communication. Multi-functional teams do just that, of course, so there we have an easy way of achieving effective organizational design.

Loose Coupling can be a little more involved to map. One way to look at that is that when communication between different teams is necessary, it should be along well-defined rules. That could be rules described in programming APIs when talking about development. Or rules as in well defined pull situations in a Lean process. Or simply the definition of specific tasks for which an organization has central staff available, such as pay-roll, HR, etc.

In general, though, the principles make it very simple: make sure all relevant decisions in day-to-day work can be made in the team context, with only in exceptional situations a need to find information or authorization in the rest of the organization.

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