Excuse me, your org chart is showing…

In 1967 computer programmer Melvin Conway wrote a paper called “How Do Committees Invent?” The thesis of his paper was later quoted by Fred Brooks in the book The Mythical Man-Month, a tome that has gone on to become a classic in software development circles. Brooks dubbed Melvin’s thesis “Conway’s Law” and it goes something like:

Organizations that design systems are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.

In other words, the things we make are a reflection of how the people making them talk to one another. Conway was talking about software development, but I’ve found the concept applies to a broad spectrum of disciplines and fields.

Product as Projected Org Chart

Do org charts, job titles, and internal corporate communication structures matter to the end user/customer of a product? On their surface, no. People care about their problems being solved, and they want products, services and experiences that do that well for a price they can live with. But if we buy into Conway’s Law, then yes, those communication structures matter a great deal because the way things are made is woven into their DNA.

Your organization is optimized to get exactly the results you’re currently getting. For good or ill, we optimize our organizations to make the product(s) we have.

Is there a disconnect between the on-boarding experience of a web app and the typical use cases for its logged in users? My guess is the teams or individuals responsible for those features and flows don’t talk enough. Does a guest at a hotel have a vastly different experience talking to the late night concierge versus using the hotel’s app? My guess is the organization doesn’t have a cohesive department whose mission is taking care of customers — they likely have a software team and a front desk team (and never the two shall meet).

In each of those examples there are only two constants: the organization, and the individual interacting with the organization. Everything in between — the teams, departments, personnel, tech, and resources, endless org charts and corporate layers of responsibility — doesn’t ultimately matter to the customer. They just want a great experience. But it matters to the customer because it’s ruining their experience. And it matters to the organization because enough ruined experiences will eventually lose you customers.

If there are disconnects in your product, there are disconnects in your org chart. So fix the internal structures, and incentivize, organize, and optimize around the outcomes you want for your customers. Out of that holistic structure will flow holistic products, services, and experiences.

Healthy people make healthy things. Healthy orgs do, too.