Your customers can tell if your team gets along

Posted by mitch on February 04, 2014
business, products

In 1968, Dr. Melvin E. Conway published an article called, “How Do Committees Invent?”

In this paper, buried towards the end, is the following insight:

organizations which design systems […] are constrained to produce designs which are copies of the communication structures of these organizations.

Thinking back on my product experiences, this has been the case every time. The cracks in products show up where teams didn’t talk to each other, where two people didn’t get along, or where someone wasn’t willing to pick up the phone and call someone else. Features or modules that integrated well and worked smoothly reflect where two or more people worked well together. In cases where one person went off by himself and re-invented the wheel, sometimes even large core parts of a product, led to internal difficulties and those internal difficulties turned into product difficulties when the product shipped.

As an engineer, every time you don’t pick up the phone to call a colleague about an integration point, you’re making life harder on your customer. As a manager, every time you don’t deal with someone not communicating, you’re making life harder on your customer. Meanwhile your competition who play well together are building beautiful products that flow.

The communication successes and failures of an organization are independent of the organization size. It’s fashionable to say that small teams work better than large organizations (37signals vs Microsoft), but in fact, a small team can be incredibly dysfunctional, just as a large organization can work well (many start-ups vs Apple).

Of course, the scope of “systems” goes beyond products. IT deployments–if your VPN guy and your Exchange guy don’t like each other, how many times do you have to login to different computers? Marketing strategies–700 folks clicked on an emailed link, but did those people have a good experience on the landing page? Sales operations–much time was invested in segmenting and building custom collateral but were those materials used or ad hoc assembled in the field? Manufacturing–sure, everyone signed off on the Micron chips, but “someone” decided to build half the boards with Hynix and didn’t tell anyone? Support–Is your support experience congruent with the product, or is it outsourced with its own login, and the support folks have their own culture?

A team that doesn’t communicate openly, frequently, and freely is expensive to operate and builds lower quality products, end-to-end.

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