A mere 47 years after being coined, “Conway’s Law” was just introduced to me this week. It states:
Any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization's communication structure.
Sit with that for a minute. Reflect on systems your organization has designed: staffing, technologies, workflows, data management, reporting, and so on. Now, consider the communication structures of your organization (poor, partial, siloed, or nil still represents a structure).
So why is this “law” so profound, and frustrating?
1. It’s counterintuitive.
Communication structures determine system development; they don’t just facilitate it. We typically regard communication as a de facto point of process, sometimes intentional, sometimes not, that supports or inhibits our work. It just happens. It’s a conduit. A medium. It’s a means to an end. Maybe it’s even a workaround. Conway’s Law, however, suggests that rather than being merely a means, our communication determines our end; not just its success or failure, but the actual design.
2. It demands a different level of awareness.
We are part of the organizational structure trying to change the structure that we are still actively creating. Communication typically functions on a default setting, or perhaps more accurately, an amalgamation of default settings within complex organizations. For most of us, it lives and functions below the level of consciousness, or at least intentionality. As such, we are simultaneously passive creators and active victims of our own communication structures – and according to Conway’s Law, therefore, the other systems we are creating.
3. We’ve wasted a lot of time and resources.
Change efforts that don’t start with addressing communication structures will be marginal – i.e. not systemic. This is one reason why most of us have been frustrated by the organizational change attempts we have experienced. Communicating is not just about the message of change or the charismatic delivery of an idea by a strong leader. It’s about the process of communication, the structure on which the change must happen over time. And, few of us, in all of our change efforts, have invested deeply in our communication structures.
I would love to follow this brief reflection with a handy and insightful list of 3-5 good recommendations for action. But, the reality is, if we go back to Conway’s Law, there is one recommendation for any organization:
Start with communication!