Conway’s Law — How empathy structures knowing

mfkellycreekAlmost 50 years ago, a famous programmer — Melvin Conway — coined what is known as Conway’s Law: “Organizations which design systems are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.” This one statement has led me on a merry chase for the last three years.

A little about me — I’m a professor of mechanical and materials engineering, and I teach design — whatever that means.  Turns out there’s about a thousand different ways humans define design.  But for the initial purpose of this blog, what I mean by this is that I teach the design process — or rather, a design process for engineered products, to undergraduate seniors in engineering.

And I do it in a very realistic way. I go out and solicit projects from industry requiring some level of technical content.  These projects have to have value to the industrial customer, and the customer has to pay.  Why this is important, believe it or not, actually has to do with empathy — money, at some level, connects the customer’s attention to the students and facilitates motivation for information transfer.  No dough involved, the kids don’t get the information they need and can’t successfully complete the project. Now, I’ve been doing this for 21 years — over 280 projects.  So I’ve had a lot of time to think about design — particularly ‘why do designs look like they do?’  Are there any deeper truths about design, other than good specifications and individual creativity?

Enter Conway’s Law — designs look like communications structures of organizations.  Huh. And so I reasoned — if that’s true, then the coherence in an information channel inside an organization is likely to profoundly influence the structure of a design.  What does that mean? Take the childhood game of ‘Telephone.’  You know — the one where 20 of you line up, and one word whispered into one ear then gets passed down to the end.  And here’s a key rule of that game. You only get to whisper in someone’s ear once.  So you start out with ‘cafeteria’ and you end up with ‘Snuffleupagus’.  And then everyone laughs.

But anyone who’s worked knows that we play that game of telephone every day of our working lives.  We tell someone something, and then two days later, we hear what we told that person come back to us.  And it’s very often something that sounds nothing like what we originally stated. But not always.  Sometimes it’s what we said.

How does that happen? The short answer is empathetic communication.  When you have an organization where repeating back what one is told is standard practice, the error rate drops tremendously.  The practice is called ‘active listening’ and there are whole books written on variations of the practice.  And it’s a whole lot easier to get it right if you’re in the same room with someone, staring them in the face.  Why?  Because of the old rule “80% of communication is non-verbal.”  That’s empathetic connection.  The bedrock of coherence.

So I took this one step further.  If design structure mirrors social structure, don’t you have to know what you’re making before you build it?  And that led me to a fundamental breakthrough in my thinking.  Social structure maps to knowledge structure, which then maps to design structure. And so different social structures produce different knowledge structures.  In other words, social/relational structures directly dictate the way — the mode — that people learn and understand.  And that is characterized by empathy.

Takeaway thought:  Social structures and their level of information coherence and exchange (dependent on empathy)  dictate the knowledge and its synergies they can manage. Further reading (about Conway’s Law):

7 thoughts on “Conway’s Law — How empathy structures knowing

    1. How could it be otherwise? That’s the funny thing — especially when you consider the temporal aspects — social structure going back in time — not only in a time snapshot in space. Think about that in terms of evolution…


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