14 December 2014

Language matters!

For various reasons I have recently found myself doing some focussed reading on an idea that the IT community knows as Conway's law.  The idea is this:

“Any organization that designs a system (defined broadly) will produce a design whose structure is a copy of the organization's communication structure.”[1]

But Conway’s law itself is not the subject of this post. This post is about another observation that I made along the way and for which Conway’s law makes a handy example. The observation is, that amongst IT professionals, Conway's law is one of a number of ideas that are generally accepted as truths, statements of something that will inevitably happen. Using Conway's law as our example, assuming that it is true that an organisation and its systems will inevitably align, leads to a whole range of other ideas around whether or not alignment is a factor in success. My quick review of the academic literature reveals that we really cannot say for sure. What we can say is that Conway's law is not a law, nor is it a theory, it’s a hypothesis.

Laws, theories and hypotheses  

Let’s tackle the difference first; a hypothesis is an educated guess supported by an explanation of why the guess might be right. Hypotheses can be tested (usually quantitatively) to see whether they can be proven correct or not. In the case of Conway’s law a number of researchers have proposed tests of the idea and reported some results, some of which say this can happen [2, 3]. 


A theory provides us with both a mechanism for and an explanation of something we observe. We may develop a theory as a result of testing one or more hypotheses and if as a result the hypothesis holds true we may have a solid theory which we can then use to predict why and how something happens in a particular set of circumstances.

A law is something that is true in all cases that meet its criteria, laws are supported by strong empirical evidence; laws can be explained by theories and laws generally do not change when new theories are developed. There aren’t actually many things outside of hard science that are laws, although there are some things we think of as laws in computer science, for example, Moore’s law, which has generally proven correct up to now. There are however, plenty of good theories that explain and predict that Moore’s law is about to run out of steam, as well as lots of hypotheses as to why this might be true. What is true though is that a hypothesis cannot ever become a theory and a theory isn’t a law, nor can it ever become one!

Why does it matter?

It matters because Conway’s law is not a law, it should not be relied upon to argue that something will always happen. Nor is it a theory, it cannot be used to predict what will happen or explain what has happened if an organisation does one thing or another. It’s an educated guess that something might happen which says nothing about how it might happen or whether it’s a good thing or not. Understanding this matters a lot if you are about to make a business decision or buy something expensive.

What should we do?

We should stop calling things a law when they are not. In the case of Conway’s law, the underlying idea is based on an older hypothesis, better known as the mirroring hypothesis[4] and it comes from the field of organisational design [5]. It was first referred to as Conway’s law by Fred Brooks [6], who incidentally is often held responsible for the declaration of another non-law; Brooks law.  Even Fred Brooks does not think Brooks law is a law, since there are a whole lot of exceptions to it, but that’s a whole other post [7].

Instead, consider what would happen if we stopped using the term Conway’s law and reframed our conversations to use the term mirroring hypothesis instead. My hypothesis is that a whole lot of slide decks might need to be re-written.

1.         C. M, “How do Committees Invent?,” 1968; http://www.melconway.com/research/committees.html.
2.         S.E. Bailey, et al., “A Decade of Conway's Law: A Literature Review from 2003-2012,” Proc. Replication in Empirical Software Engineering Research (RESER), 2013 3rd International Workshop on, 2013, pp. 1-14.
3.         I. Kwan, et al., “Conway's Law Revisited: The Evidence for a Task-Based Perspective,” Software, IEEE, vol. 29, no. 1, 2012, pp. 90-93; DOI 10.1109/MS.2012.3.
4.         L.B. Colfer, Carliss Y., “The Mirroring Hypothesis: Theory, Evidence and Exceptions,” Book The Mirroring Hypothesis: Theory, Evidence and Exceptions, Series The Mirroring Hypothesis: Theory, Evidence and Exceptions, ed., Editor ed.^eds., Harvard Business School, 2010, pp.
5.         A.S. Herbert, “The Architecture of Complexity,” Book The Architecture of Complexity, Series The Architecture of Complexity 106, ed., Editor ed.^eds., 1962, pp.
6.         F. Brooks, The Mythical Man Month, Addison-Wsley, 1975-1995.
7.         S. McConnell, “Brooks' Law Repealed,” IEEE Software2014; http://www.stevemcconnell.com/ieeesoftware/eic08.htm.

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