The Soul of the Cantilever

This weeks class started with an excerpt from The Soul of a New Machine (Kidder, 1981). In the excerpt the protaganist makes reference to how his competitors product offering (In this case a micro computer) resembles the company that build it. He states that it is “too complicated”, “too much protocol involved”, and that it “embodied flaws in the organisation”. This is essentially Conway’s Law, a theory I have become very interested in the more experience I gained across different companies.

Conway’s law states:

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

Having worked with companies ranging from a start up with only a handful of people to a huge enterprise with over 300,000 people I find that Conway’s law is scarily astute and accurate. I have had the pleasure of working in teams with great communication where innovation flowed, while at the same time having the displeasure of working in toxic teams where communication was poor and the previously discussed big balls of mud just kept getting muddier. Most of the time failures in these toxic environments was blamed on technical issues never the communication or organisational issues, when the technical issues were resolved and the failings remained all that was left was head scratching. I think it’s important to focus on not just the technical but also the team, communication and even how the organisation itself behaves to root out road blocks to success.

The Cantilever

With those thoughts in the melting pot of my brain the class moved into a practical gear, the challenge? To build the longest cantilever from a tabletop using some spaghetti, sellotape and paper. While doing so we also had one team member assigned to build a Design Activity Graph as we went about thinking about the scenario, building requirements and then completing high, medium or low level implementation. The team member performing this task switched every 5 minutes. This is a Guindon design activity.

The aim is to assess the different activities that people engage in open ended problem solving design work.

Here’s the result of our teamwork:



We found that we initially discussed some broad concepts of what we might build, then we quickly jumped into building prototypes of these concepts, we tested them and analysed the different properties they presented to help us decide on which concept we would put our full effort into.

Once we had decided what design we would go for we worked together as a team in iterative cycles where we built a piece of the structure at a low level then found ourselves taking a bit of a step back to evaluate and think about where we were with the structure at a high level, we went through this cycle with some mid level building too at each stage of extending the structure. This by be seen (kind of) in the graph above.

The Aftermath

After the task we also performed a retrospective to evaluate how well the process of designing and building the cantilever went. We felt we had a very positive process that involved all team members and everyone’s contribution was recognised and evaluated for the build. We allowed creativity to flow initially before testing some of these creative designs to give us more focused specifications. We used what we learned from these testing prototypes to be sure we were building the right thing.

When assessing what we could improve on we felt that during the building phase we tried to implement some designs that we hadn’t tested or prototyped directly into the build without assessing the impact they might have, a couple of times this put the structure at risk. We felt we should have tested these ideas in prototypes first or taken some more time to better assess how they might apply to the ongoing build.

In the end we got second place and felt our team and process were relatively successful, it was an excellent exercise in evaluating team work and something I hope to introduce back into my own team.


  1. Kidder, T. (1981). The Soul of a New Machine. Little, Brown and Company.

Donal Rafferty

Forever learning, Software Engineer, CoderDojo mentor, Smurfit Business School student, Photographer

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