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Conway’s Law, Fred Brooks and Agility.

By October 2, 2012No Comments

Melvin E Conway

We talk often about Conway’s Law and I was reminded recently of an observation Fred Brooks (author of the Mythical Man Month) made in one of his papers.

A Reminder of Conway’s Law:

“Any organisation that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organisation’s communication structure.”

Fred’s Observation:

“Because the design that occurs first is almost never the best possible, the prevailing system concept may need to change. Therefore, flexibility of organisation is important to effective design.”

This triggers a few thoughts for for me.

The first is pretty obvious – developing Agile, Systems Thinking and Lean capability across your organisation is a good defence to the harsh reality of Conway’s Law and Fred’s observation. The basic lean capabilities will develop new habits and mind-sets for learning, communicating and collaborating within cross-functional teams – and most of all, embracing the inevitable change and variation that occurs when people are involved in the process.

The second is less obvious, and I will confess this is a thought experiment for me today. Let’s add one more theorist to the mixture – Eric Evans and his work on Core Domains (aka Domain Driven Design – see this video Steve Hayes sent us years ago) tells us that not all of a system can be well designed, so figure out your core domain, and focus energy and time on that. Build around that core domain with smart engineering techniques.

What if an organisation chart is the same? Our experience tells us org charts always seem sub-optimal, and many hours are wasted trying to re-org and change-manage our workplaces into the perfect tree structure. In the end it’s almost always a matrix, and functions versus customer-focused business teams always cause dissonance for individuals. We often struggle to define the core domain of an org chart. Is it IT? Is it product? Is it marketing? Is it sales? Tell you now, it’s not HR.

Anyway, once found, Eric Evans would have us focus nearly all of our energy on identifying and enhancing the core teams in an organisational ‘system’, and we could also adapt his various tools and techniques to loosely couple other parts of the org chart to the core. Easily changed, cross functional core teams focused on the biggest problems/ opportunities/ customer segments therefore make a lot of sense in this kind of world.

Conway’s Law would then dictate that those new teams will ultimately architect our IT systems to match. It might seem the long way round to get a robust IT architecture, but it’d probably work.

What is your organisational core domain ? Are you prepared to try the experiment ? Let us know how you go.

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