Conway's Law for Business People

Michael Robinson Michael Robinson Connect Mar 17, 2024 · 4 mins read
Conway's Law for Business People

Conway’s Law is that teams will create products that reflect the structures of the organsiation they work within. Learn how to use this to your advantage.

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  1. Introduction
  2. Is it IT specific?
  3. Why does this law matter?
  4. How to combine it with business vision


This observation remains relevant today, but not solely to IT teams*. It is relevant to us all, from the strategic layer all the way down. Melvin Conway was a computer scientist who coined this law in 1967:

Organizations, who design systems, are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.

Melvin Conway, 1967

I’ve seen failure to address organisational and structural issues contribute significantly to poor performance, whether that manifests in failure in market, extreme inefficiency or failure for an organisation to effectively address obvious customer demands despite having the resources and stated desire to do so.

Is it IT specific?

Although coined and discussed mainly in the IT crowd, a wider understand and attention to this concept is necessary for organisations to transform successfully. This is especially true for older companies who have so far managed to ignore modern practices.

As IT workers must learn about the business they compete in with the organisation, it behooves the busines to understand more high level impacts of IT organisations and how they can lift or drag outcomes.

Conway’s law is a general commentary on how much more effective a transformation change can be if it comes with a carefully designed organisational structure that is aligned correctly to the way products and services are built. One cannot simply adopt and fund a transformative strategy and expect the organisation that existed before to execute it. If we could, we wouldn’t need transformation!

Why does this law matter?

In large organisations, strategy, direction and funding comes from the top. Each major business function feeds into the strategy which is signed off by the CEO/Board. Funding is allocated based on ongoing costs of business and what is needed/available to contribute to moving the strategy forward. The money flows down to the workers roughly along reporting lines. Each major business function and their directors are given responsibility to execute their part of the strategy and incentivised to be successful. This trend continues down the line.

A poorly structured organisation will compete with itself, fighting to solve problems presented at each level, potentially ignoring what the customer needs and the purpose of the original strategy. This alone is not ideal - coupled with higher levels of attrition (staff aren’t stupid) and a competitive environment, Conway’s law becomes an important tool in the box.

How to combine it with business vision

A business embarks on a transformation journey when they’ve been shocked into understanding how badly they’re setup to succeed in a market changed from their heyday. It is not something taken lightly and difficult to pull off successfully. An organisation in this position should understand major change will be required, including structural changes.

When making these changes it is common to focus on cost efficiency (less people doing more). Instead of only this facet, consider also how these new teams will communicate.

  • Who will they report to?
  • Who will these people rely on or compete with?
  • Is it realistic to expect these teams to succeed with this structure, or is there a better way to shape the organisation?
  • Are the relevant directors incentivised to work together towards the common goal or snipe and undermine each other?
  • Have we identified our organisational debt and rearranged it to better suit our goals?

The best restructures I’ve seen to support transformation have given cost efficiencies while also solving communication and dependency problems, giving more support to key groups and reducing the likelihood of toxic competition within the organisation.

No matter what market your organisation plays in, it is made of people. Changing the way people interact and work is the most difficult to get right, but placed alongside funding, strategy and the work itself is also the most important.

Changes to the way organisations are structured and how they are expected to cooperate should be baked into a strategy. Instead of “We will win by building X”, think: “We will win by becoming Y in order to build X”.

*Martin Fowler has written an excellent article covering Conway’s Law from a purely IT perspective: Conway’s Law.

Michael Robinson
Written by Michael Robinson Connect
I specialise in creating change that ensures technology organisations provide the engagement, speed and quality so critical for business success in today’s hyper competitive market.