The Process Variant of Conway's Law

Recently I’ve found myself explaining what I call “The process Variant of Conway’s Law” to several people. Most of you, dear readers, have probably figured out that Conway’s Law is one of my top 5 favorite “laws” about software development (probably right behind “9 women can’t make a baby in one month”). I’ve mentioned it in several posts in the past, for example this one on sizing iterations to your desired goal, where I said:

You end up with a sort of process/methodology version of Conway’s Law: the software development process an organization uses will directly reflect the managerial and communication structure of that organization.

And there’s another mention in this post.

The Document Mobile as a Test

My neighbor’s have a mobile hanging in their tree made out of, well, what seems like junk: CD’s, card-board but-outs, old styrofoam cups, and Mentos tins. When I look at it I think of an org-chart with it’s single point at the top and branching out sub-trees with all sorts of stuff hanging from it. Branches and leaves to use nerd-talk.

Cauvin, as he often does in the space of project management, did a good job outlining an all too common “document mobile” in the software world: you start with an MRD, which branches out to a PRD, and then an FRS, then an SRS, and finally, when the coder is coding away, tasks and other “get the shit done” items. (Don’t worry if you don’t know all those TLA’s. The actual meaning — the answer to the question “what the fuck do I write in this?” — varies from group to group across companies).

Ostensibly, the two goals of this document mobile are:

  1. To start out very broad — “we need software that allows The Kids to live a mobile life-style!” — and slowly whittle down to the extremely specific — we need to use the Motorola Fizy5 TuneDaddy with the latest Upchuck IM’ing client, but disable the Bluetooth photo sharing” … “to accomplish that we’ll use our own OS with the following screens, functionality, wizards, etc.”
  2. Allow those at the top to keep track of how much those at the bottom are getting done. That is, workflow and dashboards!

In practice, this document mobile is the prime example of The Process Variant of Conway’s Law. That is, each of those document maps almost 1-1 to a level in your org-chart:


I obviously have a strong stance on the need for software companies to simplify their over-all approach and reduce waste, so you can imagine that document mobiles like the above drive me nuts.

The point is, when it comes to process and documents, whip out your org-chart, and I guarantee there’ll be endless “synergy” between that chart and all the artifacts and practices in your process/methodology.

What You Want

Put simply, when it comes to innovating software, we’d like something like this:


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0 thoughts on “The Process Variant of Conway's Law

  1. Documents are really a form of CYA. That is the real issue. Most of the time people hide behind the documents to protect themselves. Everyone wants to have a doc that they can point to and say. See, it says it here and I did it so you can’t blame me.

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  5. Many business writers try to incorporate heaps of incidental details into their requirements documents because they are too scared of getting into trouble with stakeholders for missing things or are poorly trained.

    When they do this they end up in a vicious cycle and one you give an inch to the business, they take a mile. IT needs to take a more-pro active stance and control their own documents and contents of the documents.

    Here is a good post.

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