Conways Law and collaboration

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

— Melvin E. Conway

Melvin Conway was a software engineer in the 1960s , back when they were called computer programmers .He reasoned that in order for a software module to function, multiple authors must communicate frequently with each other and that therefore, the system will reflect the social boundaries, culture and communication systems of the organizations that produced it It was dubbed Conway’s law by participants at the 1968 National Symposium on Modular Programming.

Large compliance driven organisations, such as those in financial services and the energy sector have multiple layers primarily organised around saftey and rightly so; They have a lot of money and things that can go wrong under their and their regulator’s watch. Under Conway’s law, their systems reflect this stance.

Agile technology companies have a dramatically different stance. They are routinely centered on the cycle of ideate, design, build, test, fail and learn. The key differences here are an ethos based on failure as the path the learning and growth. 

When NAB, the large Australian bank, purchased the neo bank 86400 recently, in order to accelerate their digital banking division UBank, many surmised that Conways law would quickly kick in and that the platform would quickly adopt the culture of the new parent and the digital experience and velocity of change , all the things that the bank wanted to acquire, would quickly fall away. The jungle drums are already beating in this direction.

Conway’s Law has been used as foundational justification for the idea that smaller teams work more effectively and produce better results. The thinking is that the bigger the group, the less cohesive and more dysfunctional it would be. This is not true. Bigger groups have a different set of parameters under which they operate. That doesnt make them inherently more dysfunctional or less cohesive, though they can certainly be subject to a lot more inward lookingness and politics as staff are placed further and further away from customers and departmental heads get caught up in empire building to validate their existence and create dysfunction.

Conways law has however been increasingly embraced by organsations to organise around smaller teams. It is a primary motivation within larger organisations to partner with organisatiosn like Moroku in order to  break things earlier, embrace failure as the pathway to learning and grow faster. Few large organisations have a culture and performance management system that embraces culture and are severly constrained in their learning pathways as a result.

From Google to the financial sector, companies in every industry have adopted Conway’s Law as a way to spur innovation. Devote small teams of closely knit individuals to a single project, let them iterate, and you’ll get creative solutions fast. An upper limit of 150 people has been adopted as the ceiling for effective collaboration. More than that, politics enter and communication breaks down. 

This team limit cannot be acheived by simply creating smaller departments without risk of the “Not Invented Here Syndrome,” created through geographic barriers, organizational boundaries and domain expertise with teams forming strong but exclusive identities. Customer, Supplier relationships tend to dissolve the egos inherent with intra company challenges.

The other way to resolve the challenge is to strategically adopt collaboration platforms like Jira. Indeed this is behind Atlassians massive success. Platforms allow the jobs to be done to be divided and objectified,  requiring trhe issues to be clearly identified, specified and distributed to doers. Agile methodologies drive responsibility and accountability removing empire building. You get to attenbd meetings where you have delivered something and commit your deliverables for the next phase to the team. This approach rapidly removes passengers.

Industry legend Josh McKenty views platforms as a neutral zone where everyone can come as they are, express what they really think, and therefore promote a type of honesty and collaboration that breaks down the barriers imposed by Conway’s Law for the benefit of the organization.

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Digital is rapidly commoditising banking around the world, forcing participants to compete on margin erosion and funding. In the new engagement economy, there is an alternative: Harness the power of game to build digital experiences that deepen customer relationships, provide value and are relevant by supporting customers to thrive with their money.