Conway's Law goes deeper than your org chart

Having written a note last week on Conway’s Law, I came across this short but thought-provoking note by Ana Noemi.

If Conway’s Law asserts that software is shaped by the communication and social structures of the organisation that builds it, it follows that the individual and collective mental states of the human ‘nodes’ in that social structure will have a big impact on software design too. The interaction between people is more than just the structural sum of the parts.

In other words, proper compensation, a blame-free culture, psychological safety and other fluffy, soft-sounding phrases aren’t just there to make the team feel nice. They result in better designed software, because they improve our interactions with each other.

I’m not a big fan of comparison people to network ‘nodes’, but otherwise, this is a fundamental point. When we talk about Conway’s Law in practice, we often focus solely on structural concerns like team setup, the org chart, or individual roles and responsibilities.

We are in the habit of assuming that software quality is determined by structure and process, by meritocratic measures of individual expertise, or by our strategy and the quality of our planning.

But in terms of making change, most teams would be far better off focusing on improving the quality of the social environment in which they work first. How many team re-orgs have you seen that failed because they didn’t address the underlying culture problems?

All the best,

– Jim

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