Each company, from its departments to its teams, should have a clear structure that outlines all roles and responsibilities. Without this, communication lines can easily break, and there can be confusion about who’s in charge of what.
How most companies design their organizational systems usually follows their communication structure — or so said Melvin Conway.
Conway’s Law is the belief that — subconsciously or not — businesses will create organizational systems that closely mirror how they communicate internally.
If you’re aware of this principle in action, you can enter the planning process with the knowledge that unchecked, each employee will leave an imprint on any project they work on. While this can lead to unique results, it might not always produce the intended outcomes.
In this guide, you’ll learn exactly what Conway’s Law is and how you can use it to create better systems in your company that more accurately reflect your expectations.
What is Conway’s Law?
Melvin Conway is a computer scientist who is most famous for creating Conway’s Law, which is encapsulated in the following quote:
Organizations, who design systems, are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.
The American programmer’s adage resonated with many in the field of software engineering and continues to have an impact today. Its utility expands beyond technical industries, as Conway’s Law can be applied generally to how businesses create systems and structures.
In a broad sense, you can interpret Conway’s Law as the way each person involved in creating a new system will leave their mark on it. It also provides a useful lens through which you can dissect other companies’ structures and trace them back to the internal organization.
Why is Conway’s Law important?
Conway’s Law is important because it influences your company’s systems and structures.
To use a Conway’s Law example, think about a software development team creating a new program. If the communication between each member is fractured, the result will appear as a cobbled-together solution.
Each system will reflect internal communication systems, so to reverse-engineer the principle and use it to your advantage, it’s important to develop from the ground up. Build robust communication systems first, then begin the design process. This way, you’ll end up with a more streamlined result that feels like a collective effort rather than a fragmented solution.
Let’s take a look at what Conway’s Law can mean for your business in practical terms.
Say your company website is in dire need of a complete technical overhaul, and you have to outsource the work to a creative agency. In theory, after providing a brief of what you’re looking for, you should end up with a newly-branded website that meets your standards.
However, there’s a good chance that something just won’t feel right. Why? Because if you don’t understand Conway’s Law, you won’t know how important your company structure is to projects and systems. As such, if you don’t communicate some of the ins and outs of your business to the creative agency you hire, you’ll most likely end up with a website that more closely mirrors their internal structures and systems rather than yours.
How to create a team structure
You can apply Conway’s Law across your department to create stronger teams and promote more effective cross-functional collaboration.
First, though, it helps to know the four main organizational structure types:
A functional structure organizes talent according to specialties. It’s common among smaller businesses, which will divide employees into various departments tackling everything from sales and marketing to HR and operations.
The divisional structure is more common among enterprises since it requires dedicating entire divisions to different objectives. For instance, a large umbrella corporation with several product lines could create divisions for each product. It’s also possible to create these divisions according to country or location.
A flat organizational structure is most common among up-and-coming businesses. It’s popular with growing startups as it promotes equality of leadership across the board, meaning each employee holds a lot of responsibility and decision-making power.
The matrix structure is complex as it divides employees into various teams according to different factors. For instance, in the matrix system, you could have employees working across more than one specialty and responsible to several managers.
Teams of any structure type that adhere to Conway’s Law generally promote the following:
Clear and open communication
When building flexible hybrid workplaces that pave the way for the future of work, clear and open communication has to be a priority. Whenever you have limited communication in a team, you’re creating a level of fragmentation that will show up in everything you work on — as explained by Conway’s Law.
The idea of enterprise project management is that every team should be on the same page at an organizational level. The way you do one thing is the way you do everything, as the saying goes.
With that in mind, collective goals that align with your shared company vision will ensure that every team member is putting 100% in for the team rather than operating out of their own interests. Conway’s Law states that each individual will put their stamp on a structure or system unless you take the reins and create a collective culture.
Make key information accessible
Designing a communication plan is key to building successful teams. As part of the communication plan, it’s important to avoid creating silos whereby one team member is a gatekeeper for all the crucial information.
Instead, make sure each team member has access to everything to tear down the barriers and promote smooth cooperation.
While individual autonomy may seem at odds with the need for a collective vision and collaboration, it can empower team members to innovate and drive progress. Some level of autonomy should be encouraged when operating within the collective framework, as it’s essential for stumbling upon new ideas and ways of working.
Wrike can help you maximize your team’s efficiency
Wrike is a work management platform that can help you roll out effective collaboration across the board and make it a company policy.
Whether you’re managing Agile meetings and want to convert your meeting notes into actionable tasks and to-do lists or trying to promote cross-functional collaboration between several teams — Wrike can help.
Wrike’s 360-degree visibility allows you to keep everyone from team leaders to key stakeholders in the loop on major projects, while Kanban boards let you track the minutiae of each task to accurately measure progress.
If you want to make sure your teams operate on the right side of Conway’s Law, it helps to have all the information clearly laid out in one place. When you use Wrike, you can map out all project information, team hierarchies, and more to ensure communication structures stay in place and you don’t end up with poorly-managed systems.
Start today with a free two-week trial, and see how Wrike can revitalize your systems and processes.