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Guiding principles in project management: Conway’s law

Guiding principles in project management: Conway's law

Computer scientist Melvin Conway recognized that the architecture of software systems is often a reflection of a company’s communication structures. However, this insight does not only allow conclusions to be drawn about the development of software. Rather, it can also be seamlessly applied to other areas of a company, such as project management. We explore how Conway’s law works in the context of project management and what impact it has on the successful implementation of projects.

What is Conway’s Law and why is it important?

In April 1968, the American computer scientist Melvin Conway published his findings on the connections between communication structure and software architecture in the computer magazine “Datamation”. In it, he coined the central sentence that later became known as Conway’s Law:

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

“Jede Organisation, die ein System (allgemein definiert) entwickelt, wird etwas designen, dessen Struktur eine Kopie ihrer eigenen Kommunikationsstruktur ist.”

Conway’s law therefore states that the structure of (software) systems tends to reflect the communication structures and organizational forms of the companies that develop them. In other words, the way an organization communicates internally directly influences the architecture of the system it creates.
The effects of Conway’s law can be observed in many companies. For example, an organization with highly centralized, hierarchical, and bureaucratic communication structures tends to develop software with similarly hierarchical and complex architectures. On the other hand, an organization with decentralized, more flexible, and collaborative communication structures tends to create software that is more modular and customizable. The effects of the law can also be observed in companies that are merging. Since existing systems were developed around the communication structures of the original companies before the merger, but new communication structures have to be developed after the merger, difficulties often arise in integrating the software systems.
Conway’s law originally refers to the development of software systems. However, with a little abstraction, it can also be applied to the development of other systems, structures, products, or projects. For example, the findings of Conway’s law can be applied to management systems. In the following, for the sake of simplicity, we refer exclusively to systems.
Conway’s Law is important because it makes it clear that the design of systems cannot be viewed in isolation, but is closely linked to organizational structures. Organizations can use this principle to improve their development processes by adapting their communication and organizational structures accordingly. The law is more relevant today than ever before. Many companies today still have a classic structure or hierarchy whose basic processes date back to times when modern software was not yet in use. However, modern software solutions are geared towards networking and collaboration. Instead of traditional structures, their development requires agile teams based on Conway’s Law, which have lean and clear structures and avoid dependencies on other teams or areas. These teams reflect the desired system structure and can thus contribute to the development of lean, flexible and structured systems.

How to use Conway’s law

Conway’s law implies the following:

  • Organizational structure and software architecture are closely linked. Companies should therefore recognize that the way they communicate and are organized internally has a direct impact on the structure of the systems they develop. It is therefore important that companies understand this connection and act accordingly. Adapting the structure of a company can have a direct impact on the design of the systems it creates.
  • Since the communication structure of a company affects the system architecture, companies must optimize their communication channels to support the development of more efficient and better-adapted software.
  • Companies can benefit from flexible and agile organizational structures that allow for faster and more effective communication. This can help to develop systems that are easier to maintain, adapt, and scale.
  • The way teams are organized within a company directly influences the system architecture. Companies should therefore ensure that their teams work together effectively and have the right structures in place to develop high-quality systems.
  • As organizations evolve, existing systems also need to be updated to reflect changing structures and requirements.

This in turn can be used to derive strategies with the help of which you can take Conway’s law into account:

1. Promote cross-functional collaboration and communication:

If collaboration and communication between teams with different areas of expertise is encouraged, more standardized systems can be created.

2. Plan changes:

When organizational changes are imminent, it is important to prepare for the fact that existing systems and their architecture will also have to be adapted. Team structure, system structure, and their interactions should therefore be taken into account when making changes. If a change has already taken place, companies should adapt the systems accordingly.

3. Introduction of new systems:

Conway’s law should also be considered when introducing new systems. Otherwise, it could happen that the selected system does not fit the communication structures within the company.

4. Adapting teams to the desired system structure:

In addition, companies can build teams to reflect the desired characteristics of a system. This can promote the development of the desired system.

The reverse Conway maneuver

The reverse Conway maneuver, also known as the “reverse Conway maneuver”, is another strategy that aims to specifically influence a company’s software architecture through the design of its organizational structure. In contrast to Conway’s classic law, where the organizational structure influences the software architecture, the reverse Conway maneuver attempts to shape the organization so that the software architecture likely to emerge matches the company’s strategic goals and technical requirements. This may mean that teams and departments are organized to take on clearly defined responsibilities for specific technical components or functions. By structuring the organization in this targeted way, companies can ensure that the software architecture developed better meets current and future requirements.
The reverse Conway maneuver is, therefore, a proactive strategy to ensure that a company’s software architecture is not only dependent on the existing organizational structure but that it actively contributes to achieving the company’s strategic goals and technical requirements.
However, this can lead to so-called Conway feedback. This occurs when an existing system architecture influences how teams and departments communicate with each other within a company. For example, software with closely linked components often requires close collaboration and communication between teams, while modular software allows for greater independence and requires less coordination. Such feedback can stand in the way of changes to the organizational structure. Especially if a reverse Conway maneuver is to be implemented, this feedback can lead to the hoped-for positive effect of the organizational changes failing to materialize or even worsening the overall situation.


Conway’s law and the reverse Conway maneuver illustrate the close connection between organizational structure and system architecture. By understanding these principles, companies can not only create more effective communication channels, but also better align the development of systems and the design of their organization. In the world of project management, this knowledge is invaluable as it helps to assemble and coordinate teams more efficiently, select suitable project management methods and thus optimize the implementation of projects.

The project management software myPARM ProjectManagement offers an ideal platform for putting the principles of Conway’s law and the reverse Conway maneuver into practice. By clearly structuring projects, assigning tasks to specific teams and communicating transparently within the platform, companies can ensure that their projects and organizational structure go hand in hand. With flexible features such as Gantt charts, agile Kanban boards, or collaboration tools, myPARM offers a comprehensive solution for effective project management that incorporates the principles of Conway’s Law.

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