STAR, Strategy

Revisiting the Conway Law

The Conway Law seems to be getting a renewed interest lately. In 1968, Mel Conway, then, a manager of peripheral systems research at Univac, devised:

organizations which design systems … are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations

This seminal paper is definitely worth a careful read. Mel’s predicates are so visionary that we could easily believe that our ability to create complex systems has not improved in over half a century.

That being said, it might be timely to ask whether the boundaries of the Conway Law are still valid and if its context has changed.

Insight Before Communication

Leadership tends to focus on the culture and structure of an organization to drive towards desired business outcomes with the expectation is that a better culture and enhanced structure will lead to an effective communication. Actually we are so desperate in our quest to find a better culture that some people go as far as suggesting that “stealing” (ideas) become socially acceptable.

It is interesting to see that in the process nearly everyone rounds off insight, often assuming a perfect ability to gain the correct level of insight into a system design or a question. Mel touches that topic slightly before focusing exclusively on the relation between communication channels and the structural aspects of an organization:

It is a natural temptation of the initial designer to delegate tasks when the apparent complexity of the system approaches his limits of comprehension. This is the turning point in the course of the design. Either he struggles to reduce the system to comprehensibility and wins, or else, he loses control.

I understand that culturally, anyone who questions his or her insight, let alone someone else’s insight, will pay a high price for it. We often cover up a deficit of insight as a mere communication disconnect as everyone seeks to appear intellectually sufficient. Mel’s predicate is both foundational and consequential because it anchors our perception that insight can’t be elaborated and somehow, like knowledge, directly correlates with power. That thought is pervasive in modern organizations where the Sinofskys of the world strive as long as their levels of comprehension and control enable the organization to deliver something. I find it fascinating that 50 years apart, Mel was searching to answer the question “How Do Committees Invent?” and the prevalent culture in corporations like Microsoft or Apple abhors the “Design by Committee” process.

Can we still afford to round off insight? How and what can we really communicate without the proper insight? Don’t we spend way more time communicating our insight rather than elaborating it? How many companies fail to benefit from the collective intelligence of their organization?

The Context of Design has Changed Significantly

I don’t want to appear condescending to an era of incredible achievements but systems do evolve and new kinds of systems require new levels of insight to elaborate proper designs. Back then, most innovations were product-centric. From the mid-80s and well into the late 2000s, innovation became service oriented, and today we are rapidly moving towards an “activity oriented” innovation model.

fig 1. From products to services to activities

In a product-oriented world, consumers are left to compose individual products to create higher value use cases. In a service-oriented world, businesses identify some of these high-value combinations and deliver them “as-a-service” to their customers. The advent of Mobile platforms makes it now possible to design systems that integrate readily with the activities customers are trying to accomplish.

In an activity oriented world, the “edges” of a system take on a disproportionate importance in the design compared to their relative sizes. The focus is no longer on systems and subsystems or even their orchestration into valuable services. The focus is now on understanding every activity customers are trying to accomplish and delivering a set of products and services that will directly integrate with these activities. The design of that integration, that edge, could be, actually, will pretty much always be, far more complex than the design of products and services that support them. You don’t design “User Experience” as you design systems from subsystems. Designs need to start from the appreciation of the point of view of the end user, not just from the perceived value of a service or a product.

That change is profound because the design of an edge requires all constituents to cooperate and depart from the unidimensional mindset of product and service-centric organizations. Any inefficiency in the scope or variety of edges will have a huge impact on the success or failure of the overall design. In an activity-oriented world, the ability to harness the collective intelligence of your organization directly correlates to your success.

This evolution towards more integrated systems lead to the emergence of a new homomorphism between the type of insight different groups of people can elaborate and the structure of their organization. Even the very structure of our education system and hence hiring policies are now driven by that homomorphism.

It may not have been true when Mel wrote his paper, but today it is all too common for a group to formulate requirements based their insight to drive the design of other teams. As this new homomorphism developed the relationship between systems and subsystems, as well as the relationships between products, services and activities made it nearly impossible to devise a structure that would nurture an appropriate level of communication with the goal of achieving a shared understanding.

fig 2. From insight to shared insight

As the levels of shared or aligned insight decrease, so does the ability to create compelling and sound designs. Insight gaps develop as organizations tend to focus on building what they can understand as a subset of what their leaders can comprehend. Worst of all, some elements of the design can be built undetected until they fail their organization entirely.

A deficit of insight can be so costly to an organization and its shareholders that it should be accounted for in its balance sheet.

The Tools we Use to Communicate Impact Designs Negatively

The tools we commonly use to communicate would certainly influence Mel’s conclusions. Popular knowledge tools (office suite, mind maps, requirements management solution …) allow us to express ourselves with a greater productivity, but they may also hamper communication much more than we think. Why? The very structure that we use to communicate interferes with our ability to elaborate insight and ultimately designs.

For instance, mind maps assume a hierarchical set of relationships, this is unfortunate because most of the relationships in the physical world are not hierarchical. That view seems to be directly inherited from Mel’s era where we could still design products in terms of systems and subsystems. Similarly, when we use some “slide-ware” every system looks like a set of layers and when we use “row-ware” such as Excel or any Requirements Management tool to capture and communicate requirements, we cannot effectively represent dependencies, let alone track the elements of the design impacted by these requirements. These artificial knowledge structures are biased and negatively impact our ability to design a system.

Probably, the most important issue introduced by knowledge tools is that none of the views that we create are representing any kind of dynamic behavior. How can we create a shared understanding between such a wide spectrum of people when everything that we communicate is using the wrong kinds of relationships and lacking even the most elementary dynamic view? Especially when we consider that human languages are poorly equipped to communicate relationships and dynamic behaviors.

Introducing BOLT, a new Collective Intelligence Tool

BOLT is a new communication style and a set of guidelines to create Smart Organizations. BOLT is not a process, a canvas… and works with every strategic framework or process you currently use. It is just a different way to gather, analyze and communicate information.


  • helps create an outside-in perspective and supports a disciplined decision-making process at the scale of your organization’s ecosystem and well beyond its immediate horizon
  • creates naturally an open information flow, with sustained alignment and empowering everyone to contribute to his or her best abilities
  • is deeply rooted in system thinking and architecture and allows you to discover and evaluate alternatives rapidly.
  • provides an unprecedented way to identify value and embrace uncertainty
  • is also an amazing tool for continuous learning
  • is the ultimate tool to achieve purpose in a complex world, mobilizing everyone in the organization, with the strongest sense of empowerment

What BOLT changes is that it gives a whole spectrum of options to enhance their ability to cooperate and solve problems, well beyond the traditional managerial practices: leadership, culture, structure and execution.

A Call for Action

We must consider Insight and Communication separately. Mel’s proposition looks attractive:

Research which leads to techniques permitting more efficient communication among designers will play an extremely important role in the technology of system management.

Yet, research that would lead to techniques permitting a more efficient elaboration of insight would have a far greater impact on the system designs.

Organizations should value teams that excel at elaborating insight. This is where education and HR policies should focus.

We have to collectively drive towards closing any insight gap and expand our shared understanding to a level that is compatible with success.

We need new tools and approaches that enhance our ability to elaborate insight.

The path to insight is not as hard as it looks, from federating intuition to developing perception to growing appreciation and ultimately formulating the vision. Never again, should an individual feel that a group is limiting the design of a system. Never again, should the design of a system be limited by an individual. Never again, should a design reflect only a fraction of the insight of the overall group of designers.

My Favorite Quotes from Mel’s Article

there’s never enough time to do something right, but there’s always enough time to do it over.

there is a homomorphism from the linear graph of a system to the linear graph of its design organization the realization by the initial designers that the system will be large, together with certain pressures in their organization, make irresistible the temptation to assign too many people to a design effort

One fallacy behind [the Accounting theory of management] is the property of linearity which says that two men working for a year or one hundred men working for a week (at the same hourly cost per man) are resources of equal value.

As long as the manager’s prestige and power are tied to the size of his budget, he will be motivated to expand his organization.

Probably the greatest single common factor behind many poorly designed systems now in existence has been the availability of a design organization in need of work.

Elementary probability theory tells us that the number of possible communication paths in an organization is approximately half the square of the number of people in the organization. Even in a moderately small organization it becomes necessary to restrict communication in order that people can get some “work” done.

To the extent that organizational protocol restricts communication along lines of command, the communication structure of an organization will resemble its administrative structure. This is one reason why military-style organizations design systems which look like their organization charts.

Research which leads to techniques permitting more efficient communication among designers will play an extremely important role in the technology of system management.

the very act of organizing a design team means that certain design decisions have already been made, explicitly or otherwise. Given any design team organization, there is a class of design alternatives which cannot be effectively pursued by such an organization because the necessary communication paths do not exist. Therefore, there is no such thing as a design group which is both organized and unbiased. Every time a delegation is made and somebody’s scope of inquiry is narrowed, the class of design alternatives which can be effectively pursued is also narrowed.

Coordination among task groups, although it appears to lower the productivity of the individual in the small group, provides the only possibility that the separate task groups will be able to consolidate their efforts into a unified system design.

It might conceivably reorganize upon discovery of a new, and obviously superior, design concept; but such an appearance of uncertainty is unflattering, and the very act of voluntarily abandoning a creation is painful and expensive.

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